Friday, 18 March 2016

Book Review: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Rubbish dumps as (forbidden) playing grounds for children and mental institutions as homes for people considered for one reason or another to be unfit for taking equal part in society are a sad reality that most of us prefer not to think about. Thus it’s understandable that they aren’t among the favourite places of writers to use as setting for the main plot or a central scene of a book, but if sought for they can yet be found in literature. An example for a novel featuring both as important elements of the story is Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame, a satire on a New Zealand childhood in the boom years after World War II drawn from the author’s own experience. Confronted from an early age with all kinds of problems implied in working-class poverty, with illness and death, each of the Withers children takes another way out of misery.

Janet Frame was born Nene Janet Paterson Clutha in Dunedin, New Zealand, in August 1924. As from 1943 she studied at Dunedin College of Education to become a teacher, but suffered a breakdown during the year of practical placement in a school. The following eight years saw her in and out of psychiatric wards and hospitals in different parts of New Zealand being – falsely – diagnosed with schizophrenia which didn’t prevent her from writing, though. She made her literary debut in 1951 with the award-winning short story collection The Lagoon and Other Stories followed six years later, in 1957, by her first novel Owls Do Cry. Others of her most notable works are Faces in the Water (1961), Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963), The Adaptable Man (1965), Intensive Care (1970), Daughter Buffalo (1972), Living in the Maniototo (1979) and three autobiographical volumes titled To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy From Mirror City (1984) now published in one volume as An Angel at My Table. Jane Frame died in Dunedin, New Zealand, in January 2004. The novels Towards Another Summer (2007) and In the Memorial Room (2013) first appeared posthumously.

The Withers family of Owls Do Cry are just ordinary people living in poor circumstances in the (fictional) small town of Waimaru in post-war New Zealand. Bob Withers’ meagre salary from the factory hardly suffices to maintain his wife Amy and their four children Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks, but they do their best to keep their dignity and at least a minimum of respectability although their clothes are old, shabby and often dirty too. The children love to roam the rubbish dump nearby in search of “treasures” like a smelling, worm-eaten book of fairy-tales that they once found there. Thirteen-year-old Francie is the oldest of the siblings and just got a job as domestic help in the neighbourhood sparing her to work in the feared Woollen Mills like other girls, when she takes her brother and sisters to the rubbish dump once more.
“And then no one can describe exactly what happened, but it happened, and Francie tripped over a rusty piece of plough and fell headfirst down the slope, rolling, quickly, into the flames. And Tim Harlow’s father, the Council man, tried to grab her, and leapt high, like a ballet dancer, to reach her, crying as he danced,”
There’s no rescue for her, while for the others life goes on just like before... or not quite. Daphne has to take over the role of the eldest and it implies taking care of brother Toby who suffers from epilepsy. It’s then when her highly impressive and imaginative mind begins to drift off into her own world ever more often until years later her connection with reality is almost cut and her family gives her into the care of a mental hospital. But also the others grow up and try to shake off their ugly past, notably the rubbish dump. Toby sets all his hopes in money and works so hard for it that he even resents having to lodge the retired father and the ailing mother. Chicks asks to be called by her real given name Teresa, marries early and moves to the north with her husband.

Although written in third-person, Owls Do Cry is a very personal, not to say semi-autobiographical novel that carries the reader off into childhood with its many ups and downs as the different members of a poor family, notably the author’s literary alter ego Daphne, experience it. It goes without saying, that someone with Janet Frame’s background didn’t produce just a novel like any other. Several passages mirror the confusion of the mind that is so difficult to understand for the outsider and often condemns the afflicted to a life on the margins of society, if not locked away from the public in a mental institution. At the same time, the story is clearly meant to make fun of the narrow standards that often determine the lives of small-town people striving for economical and social rise. Careful as well as deft use of irony makes it an engaging satire. The author recounts events more or less chronologically, but focus and with it point of view switch from one sibling to the next to give the reader a comprehensive idea of the ties and traumata binding together the members of the family – if they like it or not. The language is poetic and full of surprising, most beautiful images that make the read a mere pleasure.

I experienced Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame as a witty and powerful novel novel although I must admit that I found some passages a bit difficult to follow, but this may be because I’m no native speaker of English and as usual preferred the original version to a translation. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book very much. Towards the end it increasingly reminded me of Ken Kesey’s bestselling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and made me expect a similar end. Completely in line with her own experience, Janet Frame closed her story with the preparations for Daphne’s lobotomy, though. At any rate, it’s the work of an author of extraordinary skill that deserves my recommendation.

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