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owls hier resowls do cry
Janet Frame
Virago Modern Classics

I hadn’t realised that Owls do Cry had been recently republished as a Virago Modern Classic; so once again, I’m only accidentally on trend.

I was reminiscing about my trip to New Zealand twelve years ago, and wondering if I’d ever make it back there, which led to me thinking of the film An Angel at My Table.  I then felt quite ashamed that I hadn’t actually read any of Janet Frame’s books and wondered if I would enjoy them.

The answer is YES.  I loved Owls do Cry.  It is described as a Modernist novel, and as such, is the most accessible Modernist novel I’ve read, due to the lyricism of the writing.  The prose is uniquely Janet Frame, but is reminiscent of older poetic works; that is to say, it is almost haunted by them. This phrase from The Tempest is woven through much of the early part of the novel:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry;
On the bat’s back I do fly,
After summer, merrily.

As is the language and imagery of fairy tale, like the discarded Brothers Grimm book that the Withers children find at the rubbish dump.

The story follows the lives of the Withers family in a small town on the South Island of New Zealand. They are ostracized for their poverty and consequently the Withers children, Toby, Francie, Daphne and Chick, often bunk off school and visit the local tip.  It is seen as a source of treasure by the children, but it also becomes the location of a family tragedy. The novel opens with:

Francie, Toby, Daphne, not always Chicks because she was too small and dawdled, found their treasure at the rubbish dump, amongst the paper and steel and iron and rust and old boots and everything that the people of the town had cast out as of no use and not worth anything any more.

The description of the dump, is a memory woven throughout Owls do Cry; particularly, many years later by Daphne, when she is the inmate of a mental asylum.

Owls do Cry is not autobiography.  However, Janet Frame obviously drew on details from her own life, such as her experiences of bereavement, her brother’s epilepsy and her own time in mental hospitals, where she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.

She wrote the novel in an army hut, in the garden of fellow New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, a short while after a long period of hospitalisation.  A detail that most people know of the writer, is that she had a last minute reprieve from a scheduled lobotomy, when a member of staff read that Janet Frame’s collection of short stories had won a prestigious literary prize, and knowing this makes Owls do Cry even more poignant.  The scene where Daphne’s brother and father visit her at the mental hospital is very moving, as are the descriptions of Daphne’s life as a mental patient.

It is a beautiful, sad debut novel, which has stood the test of time, and is one I would recommend as a way into Janet Frame’s work.

Watch an interview with the writer here: