Owls Do Cry

Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry (1957)

What it’s about: New Zealand, the 1930s. The Withers are a working class family living in poverty in a small town in Waimaru, a small rural town in the South Island of New Zealand. The father, Bob, is a railway worker, who struggles to provide for his wife Amy and his four children: Francie, the eldest, who dreams of being an opera singer; Daphne, who has aspirations to be a writer; Toby, an epileptic whose disability terrifies his family and makes him the town pariah; and Teresa, nicknamed Chicks. Part One, set in the 1930s, follows the children through a life of Depression-era poverty, playing in the local rubbish dump and being shamed at school for not being clean and presentable, while their parents live on credit and struggle to pay their bills. Francie is forced to leave school at 13 and fears having to work at the local woollen mill, but her father finds her work in domestic service. On an afternoon outing to the dump, Francie falls and is accidentally killed in a fire. The story is bookended by the adult Daphne’s stream-of-consciousness narrative, from a place called “the dead room”, which is revealed to be a lunatic asylum. Part Two takes place twenty years later. Bob has retired from the railways, and struggles with boredom and poor health. The adult Toby still lives at home with his parents, his epileptic fits now managed with medication; desperately lonely and still considered strange by the township, he saves his money and dreams of finding love and travelling the world. Teresa has moved away and is now married with three children, distancing herself from her family as she strives to fit into polite middle-class society. Daphne is still a patient in the asylum, forbidden contact with her family and frequently put in isolation for her violent, and lives in daily terror of receiving electric shock treatment. After Amy dies, Toby visits Teresa and reads her diary, in which she describes her contempt for the family; he burns the diary in the fireplace and leaves the house in the middle of the night. Daphne’s doctor persuades Bob to agree to give Daphne a lobotomy, in the expectation that she will live a normal life afterwards. Bob and Toby visit Daphne in the asylum before her operation. Bob is horrified at Daphne’s appearance, and tells her that Amy is still alive; Daphne, knowing this to be a lie, tells him to leave. In an epilogue, the manager of the Waimaru woollen mills and his wife read the paper and discuss local news. Toby has been arrested for vagrancy; Daphne, released from the asylum after her operation, now works in the mills and has been promoted. The novel ends with Bob languishing alone in an Old Men’s Home overlooking the sea.

Why it’s a classic: Owls Do Cry was Janet Frame’s first novel, published in 1957 after her release from nearly a decade of life in psychiatric hospitals, following an incorrect diagnosis of schizophrenia. Her collection of short stories, The Lagoon, had been published in 1951 while she was still confined in hospital, and won a major literary prize, announced just days before she was scheduled to receive a lobotomy. “My writing saved me,” Frame wrote later in An Angel at My Table, the second of her acclaimed three-volume autobiography which became the subject of Jane Campion’s award-winning biopic of the same name. Owls Do Cry was an immediate success in New Zealand, and found a number of admirers overseas, including English novelists Alan Sillitoe and Margaret Drabble (who wrote a glowing introduction to my Virago Modern Classics edition). Much of the attention at the time was around Frame’s super-charged, image-rich rendering of childhood and New Zealand small town life, and the nightmarish intensity of Daphne’s hospital scenes. The novel blazed a trail in its critique of psychiatric institutions, years before this narrative found more popular success in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and in the writings of therapist R. D. Laing, who argued that mental institutions made sane people mad. Frame returned to these themes of incarceration and madness over and over again throughout her life, most notably in Faces In the Water, written in 1961 after Frame had moved to London, and under the care of a more enlightened doctor who confirmed she had never had schizophrenia.

For better or for worse, the “mad woman writer” epithet stuck to Frame like glue, and has dominated most discourse around her life and work. In 2007, three years after Frame’s death, an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggested that she had an autistic spectrum disorder, a claim that was angrily denied by Michael King, Frame’s biographer and close friend. It’s taken until fairly recently for Frame to be recognised as a gifted storyteller with a masterful command of her craft. In her sympathetic and spirited introduction to Faces in the Water, Hilary Mantel writes: “It is time to subdue the urge to pathologise, and see Frame as the highly conscious artist that she was. At first her prose may seem a luxuriant unpruned Eden. But soon the reader sees the careful gardening, the astute nurture of what nature provides. Frame’s inner geography is complex, her psyche contains elaborate structures. She has the artist’s ability to make strange associations and imaginative leaps…. To the listener of a crude sensibility, inspiration sounds like madness – all the material is there, for a medic with a check-list.” This same defence can be applied to Owls Do Cry, which is, arguably, New Zealand’s first great modernist novel, employing the same writerly techniques as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – multiple narrators, fluid movement between past and present time, the subjective experience of “mad” characters – and the poetic stream-of-consciousness narrative of Virginia Woolf. Owls Do Cry deserves its place as a modern classic, not just because it chronicles a woman’s suffering and survival, but because it demonstrates a writer at the peak of her powers, unafraid of taking massive risks with style and form, and creating a work of enduring emotional power.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge fuzzy red-headed bouquet. I can’t recall whether I read Owls Do Cry in the 1990s and forgot about it, or tried to read it and abandoned it out of sheer confusion. What a huge treat it’s been to discover this book in my 40s, living as Frame did for periods of her life far away from New Zealand. I’d read (and thankfully remembered) Frame’s autobiography and Campion’s film, so the storyline of Owls Do Cry was familiar to me, as was the setting of Oamaru, a sinister little town in the South Island not far from where I grew up. The joy of reading Frame’s story told once as fiction and again as memoir is that it accentuates her astonishing technique and her precise, highly evocative use of language. Every page contains an image or insight that’s perfectly weighted and emotionally resonant, from the most quotidian details of domestic life (“Calendars hang upon the wall and have bills pinned to them from the grocer and milkman and butcher; and somehow they contrive in hanging there to collect all the days and months of the year, numbering them, like convicts, in case they escape”) to the surreal visions of Toby’s epilepsy (“[A] dark cloak would be thrown over his head by Jesus or God, and he would struggle inside the cloak, pushing at the velvet folds, waving his arms and legs in the air till the sun took pity, descending in a dazzling crane of light to haul, but, alas, preserve, where in all the sky, Toby wondered, this cloak of stifling recurring dream“). Daphne’s monologues are especially dense and baffling, bookending the novel before we understand who is speaking, with imagery drawn from William Blake, fairy tales and the startling vividness of her real and imagined environments. Like Faulkner and Woolf, she reserves for her “mad” characters the impassioned insight of prophets. Daphne describes her fellow patients as “growing gentle and together, like old bulbs without promise of bloom, thrown to the rubbish heap and sinking in the filth and blindness to sprout a separate community of dark, touching tendril and root“, and “the grey crater of the long-dead mad lies empty enough to be filled with many truths together“. The natural world is super-charged with the same melancholy that haunts the characters: “they heard no sound, only the desolate heave of despair that fir trees give, not in any wind or storm, but out of some death or loneliness inside themselves“. Writing as precise and exacting is the antithesis the confessional ravings of a lunatic – rather, it’s the work of a great artist. “When such a writer is at the height of her powers,” Hilary Mantel argues, “everything seems significant; the merest everyday object becomes freighted with symbolic value and drenched in a strange kind of beauty…. Objects transform before their eyes and reveal their true nature; the world unpeels itself…. The world takes on a heightened poignancy, which then destabilises emotion. This is the essence of the artist’s work.”

Setting Owls Do Cry as a novel allows Frame some expansiveness of point-of-view: rather than the monolithic “I” of the memoirist, she extends empathy towards her fictional family, who are treated (mostly) with sympathy and insight. The beleaguered patriarch Bob despairs at the burdens of poverty, unruly children and his own mortality, trying “to pick and unpick something inside himself that every year of being alive had knitted, with the pattern, the purl and plain of time gone muddled and different from the dream neatness“; Amy, “like an old worn letter-box standing there year after year and having posted in her all the bits of news and worry and fear and love”, consoles herself with song and prayers for happier times; and Francie kicks against the narrow path her father chooses for her, before her life is tragically extinguished. Frame’s evocation of Toby’s loneliness and unfulfilled dreams of love and happiness are especially poignant, and the casual reportage of his decline into vagrancy makes for a devastating finale. Teresa fares rather less well: as the baby Chicks, we feel sympathy for her being made to walk to the dump, “a long way to walk and have to catch up all the time” and not be given aniseed balls as a reward; as the adult Teresa, she’s rather less likeable, and her attempts to live a respectable middle-class life become the target of Frame’s authorial contempt. Frame exacts similar revenge on the novel’s other well-to-do characters: a doctor with who Teresa attempts to ingratiate herself turns out to murder his wife, and Toby’s unrequited crush Fay marries a man who is later imprisoned for embezzlement. While these vignettes provide some comic relief, Frame’s satire is rather blunt and childish, tinged with the envy of the resentful outsider, and lacking the sophistication of her other writing.

Frame’s vision of human suffering is unremittingly bleak: all the Withers family fear the constrictions and limitations of their lives, dropping “into one of the little painted holes, their niche, it is called, and there roll their lives round and round in a frustrating circle”, from which there is apparently no escape: “[E]ach time they made their way and the world had dropped them for a while to a peaceful hiding place, it would again seize them with a burning one of its million hands, and the struggle would begin again and again and go on and on and never finish.” This kind of alienation is de rigeur now in contemporary novels, but for a writer born in the Depression and coming of age in the socially conformist 1950s, it’s especially bold and fearless. Frame persuades her readers to draw their eyes away from the known and the everyday and confront the sorrow of human existence, empathising with the most vulnerable members of society. What a trailblazer she was, and how profoundly grateful I am for the example of her commitment to being an artist, and the rich body of work she left behind.

Quotable Quote: The day is early with birds beginning and the wren in a cloud piping like the child in the poem, drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe. And the place grows bean flower, pea-green lush of grass, swarm of insects dizzily hitting the high spots; dunny rosette creeping covering shawl cream in a knitted cosy of roses; ah the tipsy wee small hours of insects that jive upon the crippled grass blades and the face of the first flower alive; and I planted carrot seed that never came up, for the wind breathed a blow-away spell; the wind is warm, was warm, and the days above burst unheeded, explode their atoms of snow-black beanflower and white rose, mock the last intuitive who-dunnit, who-dunnit of the summer thrush; and it said to plant the carrot seeds lightly under a cotton-thin blanket of earth, yet they sank too deep or dried up, and the blackfly took hold among the beans that flowered later in midnight velvet, and I thought I might have known, which is the thought before the stealth of fate; lush of summer, yes, but what use the green river, the gold place, if time and death pinned human in the pocket of my land not rest from taking underground the green all-willowed and white rose and bean flower and morning-mist picnic of song in pepper-pot breast of thrush?”

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