Spending time with Gran is having an interesting effect on my reading. Firstly, as I mentioned yesterday, I am doing a lot less as either we are sat nattering away, there are one hundred and one jobs to do or she wants to go off gallivanting here, there and everywhere. (I didn’t think you could gallivant with a quad stick or in a wheel chair but Gran is proving me wrong.) We were talking the other day about any authors we wished we had read and haven’t as yet and the first one that popped into my head was Janet Frame. Unlike some of the more obvious authors (mainly all the classic canon ones, okay, okay already) she is one that is little known really and yet people whose opinions I trust, in this case Stella Duffy, Dovegreyreader and a lovely New Zealand friend on GoodReads, have raved about her and so I had picked her up debut collection, ‘The Lagoon’, up at the library on a recent trip. Well I have been dipping in and out of the twenty four short stories in this collection between dashing about and what a collection it is.
With a collection of any short stories it is really difficult to write about them as a collection. With a collection like ‘The Lagoon’, where there are twenty four stories to cover and they are all pretty fantastic it is even harder. So I am going to try and cover both the moods and tones of the collection and also which of the stories really stood out for me. First of all, and this is really what links all the stories the most obviously, I just want to say that I utterly adore Janet Frame’s writing style. It is really quite unlike anything I have read before as it has this sort of dream-like, or indeed nightmare-like, quality to it. It manages to be quite spare, sparse and matter of fact whilst being rather surreal.
It is poetic but not to the point of being precious, and she has a way of repeating phrases in each story which rather than being irritating actually make the points of the tale resound again and again, highlighting what she wants to say. Sometimes this will simply be a line in a story, or indeed like in the title tale ‘The Lagoon’ the first paragraph is also the last, not word for word yet almost slightly. It’s effective and also feels like Frame is catching you out or checking you are concentrating.
“At low tide there is no lagoon. Only a stretch of dirty grey sand. I remember we used to skim thin white stones over the water and catch tiddlers in the little creek nearby and make sand castles. This is my castle, we said, you be Father I’ll be Mother and we’ll live here and catch crabs and tiddlers forever…”
The dream like and nightmare like states of this collection are really mirrored in its two main tones/moods. The whole collection has a nostalgic and melancholic feel to it but sometimes of a very happy note and others an incredibly sad one. Loss is featured throughout, be it loss of a person, loss of security, loss of self or even a loss of the mind itself. The latter linking into the fact that Janet Frame was indeed sectioned and this very collection winning an award saved her from having a lobotomy which had been booked imminently. ‘The Bedjacket’ (which made me cry), ‘Snap-Dragons’ and ‘The Park’ all highlight asylums and mental illness in such a blunt raw and eye opening, and also psychological way, they left me almost speechless. The openness of this is quite unnerving and raw, yet all the more compelling and emotional. You could tell these stories were coming from the heart.
Most of the stories are told in a child’s narrative or from written from the perspective of someone very young. I am quite picky with child narration, sometimes it can feel a little forced, took knowing or too naïve, in the case of Frame’s tales in the collection where she uses the device (which is most of them actually) she gets the voice spot on, something I think is a tricky craft in itself. She also gets the relationship between siblings as youngsters just right too.
“Myrtle came home from down south full of secret smiles and giggles. Vincent, she said. Vincent this and Vincent that. Sometimes letters came and I who was Myrtle’s confidante had the privilege of curling up on the end of the bed and saying, read us that bit over again, read us the bit you missed out last time.”
Having gone off and found out more about her, always a good sign when I do this with a new to me author, and look up her other works etc did lead me to pondering just how autobiographical some of these tales are. As I mentioned Frame spent quite some time in an asylum and this is reflected in some of the stories. I also discovered that both her elder sisters drowned, in separate incidents, and some of the tales are concerning young death and water is an element that appears throughout this collection too.
I am so glad I have read ‘The Lagoon’ and been introduced to a new author such as Janet Frame whose writing and prose has really resonated with me. She is also one of those authors I love who writes about the smallest, most miniature, of things and makes a story from it. It’s more observational than plot driven, but in the right hands and written like this almost every tale is like a small emotional epic situation unfolding. There is no question that I will most definitely be reading more of her work in the future and I would strongly urge you to dip your toes into ‘The Lagoon’ and you could find a wonderful new to you author too.
Who else out there has read Janet Frame and what did you think? I would love recommendations of the other works of hers that I should read, what would you recommend next?