Janet Frame – Owls Do Cry

Today is the second session of the newly minted Dead Writer’s Book Group (#ddwritersbkgp)  – this time we’ll be talking about New Zealand author Janet Frame’s first novel, Owls Do Cry. Here are some quickly-written thoughts (as bullet points this time) on the book, something that helps me prep for our Twitter discussion. The discussion is open to anyone, so please join in if you have the chance/inclination.

• The cover of my edition of Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry is from 1967 (the book was first published in 1957) and shows the silhouette of a feminine head, although bald, with puzzle pieces laid across the forehead and stretching up onto the top of the head. The head and the blank space behind it are done in a light blue; and the outlines of the head in a slightly darker blue. The puzzle pieces are done in vibrant colors with a floral motif. It’s a striking image and ties in perfectly with the last few chapters of the book. It also confirms (to me, at least) that while the book spends an equal amount of time on each of its characters, the person the reader is supposed to become the most attached to is Daphne. Because this disembodied head on the cover, with its downturned eyes and missing puzzle pieces, is most certainly Daphne Withers.

• Owls Do Cry tells the story of the Withers family – parents Bob and Amy, and children Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks. The first half of the book covers their childhood while the second half begins twenty years later with the adult lives of these four children. Actually, three of them, because one dies before becoming an adult. Although all four remain equally present in Part Two. That is just one of the curiosities of this completely unique book. In Owls Do Cry, childhood and adulthood are fixedly connected, and any attempt to separate the two causes pain and even madness.

• Despite the overall linear progression of the narrative, the book isn’t really all that interested in timeline. The stories of each of the children criss-cross somewhat, doubling back on each other as Frame gives us portraits of them as adults. The book plays a lot with the fluidity of time, and gives the reader a sense that the past and the present (and even the future) share the exact same emotional space. I found this extremely interesting, mostly because it strikes me that negotiating the emotional responses to past, current and future events is a particular task of the rational brain. Frame seems to be making a comment, or at the very least, exploring the rational brain and what we—readers, humans, sane individuals—expect of it.

• Although the book does tell a “story”—in that it looks at four individuals as children and then reveals their lives to the reader as adults, and then even goes beyond that in what is probably the most successful and fascinating epilogue I’ve ever read—it’s hard to consider Owls Do Cry as interested in “story” in the traditional sense. Frame puts together a series of portraits and arranges them somewhat linearly, and although there is this sense of showing what has happened to these children as adults, the overall effect is loosely conjunctive instead of flowing and coherent.

• Daphne seemed to be a focus of the novel, at least this is the impression I had while reading of her life as a child. And the second half of the book is extremely concerned with her, even while she is mostly missing from it. And yet, I found myself curious about Frame’s deliberate exclusion of any transition. We meet her as an intact child and then as a broken adult. I was nearly sad not to see the movement from one to the other, at the very least as a way to try and understand what had happened to her.

• Even a quick read of Frame’s autobiography shows that she dealt constantly with issues of mental illness; that preoccupation is certainly evident in Owls Do Cry. I’m curious if her later fiction (she has twelve novels total) continued to engage with this theme.

• Just a word on the style—Frame weaves a lot of poetry into her narrative, and her syntax is often a little dissonant. I think the dissonance works beautifully to make the reader aware that this is uncommon storytelling, that the book is more interested in the emotional truth of the images brought forward, instead of their logical truth. At the same time, it wasn’t an easy book to read and it felt at times that Frame wasn’t always in control of her imagery and language. I’ll be very curious to see how she developed her style in later works.

This is crossposted at Dead Writer’s Book Group.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

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