The Lagoon – Janet Frame

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.

Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback, 1951 (1997 edition), fiction, short stories, 189 pages, borrowed from the library

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?


Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Janet Frame, Review, Short Stories

16 responses to “The Lagoon – Janet Frame

  1. Lovely review Simon, you’ve reminded me of what I loved about this collection. I read it back in 2010, and I see (looking back) that you commented saying you were keen to read it! Like you, I bought quite a few others, but have yet to read any of ’em.

    • Ha its nice to see its only taken me two years to do so. Time seems to fly and there are always so many books. Maybe we should do something Frame based together in the future at some point. I just got one of her novels from the library!

  2. I live in the UK but I’m from NZ – Dunedin, actually, not too far away from Oamaru where Janet Frame lived for most of her early life – so she’s always been a big part of my literary consciousness. Although I haven’t read this short story collection, from the sounds of it I think that you would really like her memoirs, in particular the first volume, which is called To the Is-Land.

    Owls do Cry was her first novel, and I think probably her best known (although shamefully I haven’t read it!)

    • I will have to look up that book, thanks for the recommendation Justine. I have looked up Owls Do Cry and it seems like its out of print sadly, I will have to scour charity shops and see what I can find. Or ask Persephone to publish them hahaha.

  3. I’m also a New Zealander, and Janet Frame has been part of my literary life and studies for many years.
    I would say read ‘Owls do Cry’ next – semi-autobiographical and devastating. My favourite is probably ‘Scented Gardens for the Blind’. I also love the memoirs.

    • Thank you Alexia, alas she seems a little tougher to get hold of in the order I would like here in the UK. I will have to keep hunting as I would like to read Owls Do Cry next if possible.

  4. I would highly recommend the film about Janet Frame and her writing. It is very well done, or at least I thought so and I know many others agree. Here is the link. It is called An Angel At My Table. Pam

  5. stelladuffy

    Yay Simon – now read the novels! The autobiography is great, and the film is too, but the novels are where she excels and sadly the success of film made too many people think her story is simply that of a bright woman, who suffered too long in a dreadful system, and while that is true, her own writing speaks for itself. Owls do Cry, The Carpathians, Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room – and plenty more.

    • I have just managed to gran a copy of Living in the Maniototo from the library, god love the library, and so that will be my next one. I wanted to get Owls Do Cry but alas it seems a bit difficult to get over here.

      Thank you so much for the recommendation Stella, please feel free to impart many more!

  6. Geraldine

    I discovered Janet Frame’s writing when I lived in Dunedin in 1970. Owls Do Cry made quite an impact on me and I visited places she had written about and had lived. I have since read a number of her books.I can highly recommend To the Is-land and An Angel at My Table in particular. The film was very good also.

  7. Frame’s The Daylight and the Dust: Collected Short Stories took my breath away. I had read some of these stories in previous collections but rereading her work only adds to the pleasure.

  8. This is a lovely review. I’d never heard of Frame before this, but I’m certainly adding her to my reading list now!

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