Wednesday 13 January 2010

In the Frame

Thanks for all your contributions on the previous post, that was both interesting and reassuring - I thought I might be single-handedly holding up the biography market! I couldn't think of any better way to express why I chose to read biographies (and their ilk) except the rather obvious one 'to find out more' - but Karen put it so adroitly when she wrote in the comments "A good auto/biography tempts a different part of the appetite from that which fiction satisfies."

Onto another section of that appetite tonight - short stories. Those in the collection The Lagoon by Janet Frame, to be precise. I've said it before - every time I blog about a book of short stories, I come up against a brick wall, and find it more or less impossible to write coherently (or, rather, cohesively) about the book. But I'll do my best...

I have Lynne (aka dovegreyreader) to thank for bringing Janet Frame to my attention, which she did with one of these posts. I'd been meaning to read more New Zealand authors, and so the name was stored in the back of my mind... when I found The Lagoon in an Oxford charity shop, I pounced. And I thought it was very good. This is Frame's first published work, from 1951, and it went on to win the Hubert Church Award - which basically saved her from a leucotomy operation, which had been due to take place at the psychiatric hospital where she'd been diagnosed as schizophrenic. Gulp. As I wrote yesterday, an author's life and experiences probably oughtn't overly influence how I read their work, but with Frame she makes no secret of it. A lot of the stories take place in institutes,
and the themes are often of seeking mental freedom, of experiencing life in independent and rich ways. This excerpt from 'Snap-Dragons' is quite representative:
If you were free did you always fly away? Or were you ever free? Were you not always blundering into some prison whose door shut fast behind you so that you cried, let me out, like the bee knocking in the snap-dragon, or the people beating their hands on the walls of their ward.
Frame often uses a sort of off-kilter stream-of-consciousness intended to reflect an mind going through imbalance, using structure to unsettle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it gets in the way of the narrative a little... it was a technique which didn't really succeed for me in Emily Holmes Coleman's A Shutter of Snow, but with Frame it is more subtle, and only sometimes irksome rather than effective.

A more successful way of unsettling the reader is Frame's tec
hnique of disconcerting endings to her stories. They often end disjointedly, suddenly touching another topic or emotion. For example, 'The Pictures' is about a girl and her mother visiting the cinema. All the emotions they feel in response to the film are explored, and the world outside once they leave the cinema, and then the final words are: 'But the little girl in the pixie-cap didn't feel sad, she was eating a paper lolly, it was greeny-blue and it tasted like peppermints.' It introduces a new tone, and shows that the close of a short story is only really the reader turning to face something else, it isn't really an end.

I usually write in reviews of short story collections that they're not as good as my first experience, with Katherine Mansfield - Janet Frame is no different, but she is perhaps closer than anyone else I've read. These stories, like Mansfield's, are often very short, very perceptive and affecting. One of my favourites was one of the shortest - 'A Short Note on the Russian War'. If people are interested to sample Frame's work, I'll type it out and post it in a day or too? Anyway, I wholeheartedly second Lynne's recommendation. Once you've exhausted all of KM's output, there is another New Zealander worth putting in the Frame...


  1. I haven't read this collection, but you might be interested to know that Virago have published some of her volumes of autobiography as modern classics - which detail all of her psychiatric problems. A disturbing but also very positive ultimately memoir

  2. I really need to read Janet Frame at some point as you and Lynne have raved about her and the lovely Stella Duffy has also raved about her. I just didnt see any of them before the book buying ban!

  3. I've always wanted to read Janet Frame's books, so I appreciate this review. I want to read more world literature in general, actually. I'm too US/UK centered and I'd like to expand my horizons.


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