The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Janet Frame. Janet Frame first came before the public with short stories in the volume The Lagoon, 1951. Their theme was the sense of insecurity, of loss, of exile and homelessness of spirit which the child or the unstable personality may feel among those average folk, however kindly, who must deal with them in everyday living. These stories are compassionate without sentimentality. They are fragmentary, however, and give an impression of imperfect control.
Owls Do Cry, 1957, expands and deepens this tragic understanding. As a novel it is bound together in a structure which resembles music or poetry rather than conventional narrative. There is perhaps some uneasiness in its rapid transitions between realism and' poetic suggestion, but the content and method are so original that it can be judged page 99 only on its own terms. To disapprove, as many readers did, largely because Owls Do Cry is unconventional is to cut oneself off from a valuable experience.
This is the novel for which Robin Hyde was seeking, one which is not "aggressively insular", but is about "something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child". It is about life, suffering, the death of the heart, about "the second selves of truth". That these things haunted Janet Frame's pages was obvious in The Lagoon; how then to organise them into a coherent artistic vision, one that would have unity, focus, the memorability of co-ordinated impressions?
Janet Frame chooses the life of a family called Withers; one suspects at once a symbol in the name. Bob and Amy, their children Francie and Daphne, Toby and Teresa, live at Waimaru, a setting recognisable down to its smallest detail, with its flour mill, rubbish dump, begonia house, woollen mills, butter factory, and "shovel scoop of a bay". The extraordinary vividness with which this little town leaps to the mind is partly due to the undeceived childlike penetration of the gaze that is turned upon it, and partly to the author's scrupulous selection of detail./Here, then, in this instantly recognisable local scene, are the foundations from which an exploration of the meaning of life will start. The Withers family are not typical New Zealanders, rather they typify human experience. Not all the disasters of sickness, sudden death, mental failure, epilepsy, slow desiccation by middle-class respectability, befall every one of us; but these are all elements in tragic human experience, which is what Janet Frame is writing about.
Chronology, obviously, will not be enough to hold such material together; nor can one point of view be maintained, if the inner life of Toby or Daphne is to be fully evoked. Thus Janet Frame adjusts the angle of presentation to suit her need, not entirely regarding the reader's convenience. It is this constant change of viewpoint, as well as the frequent unforeseen shifts from realism to symbolism, from satire to interior monologue, which make the novel difficult to grasp. One reading is, of course, not enough, any more than one hearing satisfies for a new symphonic work. "It is necessary," remarked Winston Rhodes, "to turn the pages backwards as well as forwards."21