Monday, 29 November 2010

Stories from Across the Ditch

A while back, on the Thursday night Twitter chat-fest we call South Pacific Book Chat (#spbkchat), the topic was New Zealand literature, and I was cast in the unusual position of a mute bystander, having only read works by Katherine Mansfield (exquisite short stories, poignant and thought provoking) and Lynley Dodd (Hairy Maclarey from Donaldson's Dairy).

The one name that came up again and again was Janet Frame, so I decided to check her out and was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Daylight and the Dust, a collection of Frame's short stories, from the lovely Golda at Random House AustraliaOf course, then I had a nasty bout of RSI and a flare-up of my old back issues too, which made both reading and writing (typing) rather difficult - not to mention painful.  Consider this a belated repayment of my literary and blogging debts :)

The Daylight and The Dust is a selection of Frame's short stories, gleaned from her various collections, ranging from the early 1950s to the end of her life.  There is a staggering variety in the selection, with serious, thought-provoking psychological tales brushing shoulders with whimsical childhood memories and ultra-short stories which are over almost before you've realised you're reading them.  Several of the stories are set in London, and this colonial view of life in the mother country reminded me a little of V.S. Naipaul's short fiction, written around the same time.  Of course, as a Kiwi writer, it's rather obvious to say that Frame's writing is influenced by Mansfield (I'm not sure anyone from New Zealand could write short stories without sensing her shadow looming heavy in the background), but there is a definite similarity in some of the themes covered.

One example of this is The Tea Cup, a story about a woman sharing lodgings and tentatively trying to create a connection with a male fellow lodger.  The subtle desperation exuding from the poor, lonely woman reminded me of several of Mansfield's eternal spinster characters, wonderful women destined to live and die alone, unloved.  The idea is also helped by Frame's light, airy style, with both the language and the events of the story appearing at first to be quite trivial while masking great sadness and inner torment.

Another story touching on a sense of unfulfilment (if that's a word!) is The Triumph of Poetry - one of the longer stories in the book -, which follows a man from his very successful school days through his moderately successful life, always reminding the reader of the hero's failure to become a real poet, life having got in the way.  Despite the character's apparent professional and personal happiness, Frame skilfully weaves an air of unhappiness between the lines, leaving the reader with the sense of what might have been.

One of the interesting features of this book was the number of very short stories, ludicrously brief in some cases.  One, the title story, barely reached two hundred words (and I have to say that it wasn't one of my favourites...), and there were several others which were a little over a page long.  However, even in some of these shorter efforts, there was some wonderful writing.  In Dossy, a story taking up just under two pages of very uncluttered text, the little girl featured goes from being a Queen bee to an envious poor girl to a doomed orphan in the space of a few hundred words (and three differing viewpoints) - a wonderful achievement.

In fact, several of the more memorable stories centre on childhood, Frame evoking nostalgic memories of long, lazy holidays long forgotten.  However, for the adult reader, there are often darker undertones lurking beneath the surface, saving the tales from becoming mere descriptive passages and turning them into something a little more interesting.  Good examples of this include The Reservoir, a story about children daring to break an unspoken taboo, and Swans, where a family (sans father) go on a curiously bleak day trip to the beach.  These stories are both familiar and yet slightly unnerving, leaving the reader with a sense of more happening than meets the eye, which (of course) is how good writing should be...

The Daylight and The Dust is a nice introduction to an obviously talented writer, but it is a little like an appetiser before the main meal.  I'm more of a Victorian pot-boiler man than a short-story afficionado, and these stories have merely whetted my appetite for something a little lengthier.  So, to finish up today, I'll turn the spotlight back on my audience and ask: have you read any of Frame's novels?  What would you recommend?

I'd be very interested to hear your opinions :)

P.S. As I began to write this review, I flicked over to Twitter (as you do) and, after following a few interesting tweets and links, I found something which brings a certain symmetry and serendipity to my post.  Apparently, Tim Jones (an NZ Science-Fiction Writer and a regular at the aforementioned #spbkchat event) was awarded a prize this week (and well done to him for that!).  Which one, you ask?  Well, would you believe it was the Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature?  Life, sometimes, truly is stranger than fiction.  And nicer :)