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A new Janet Frame story collection: Worth the long wait
“Between My Father and the King,” a collection of new and uncollected stories by New Zealand author Janet Frame, showcases the late writer’s whimsy, distinctive voice and X-ray insight.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories’
by Janet Frame
Counterpoint, 252 pp., $26
A writer who is sensitive enough to have unusual powers of perception may also be a writer who is debilitatingly sensitive to criticism.
That seems to have been the case with New Zealand author Janet Frame (1924-2004), best known for three volumes of autobiography that were adapted into a film, “An Angel at My Table,” by Jane Campion.
Frame’s distaste for the publishing process once prompted her to quip, “I think posthumous publication is the only form of literary decency left.” Maybe this explains why so much of the work in “Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories” is first-rate, yet remained unpublished in her lifetime.
Take “Gorse Is Not People.” Written in 1954, it was rejected by a New Zealand literary journal as being “too painful to print.” One wonders what the editor can have been thinking.
This comic-gothic tale — about an institutionalized female dwarf, Naida, who thinks she’ll be released from her “mental ward” existence when she turns 21 — ranks with the best of early Welty or McCullers. Frame is sharp on what’s “off” about Naida, and just as canny on how the medical professionals surrounding her handle her.
But there’s more than close observation going on here — there’s the wild-card element of Naida herself.
When asked how she plans to celebrate her 21st, she doesn’t miss a beat: “Spongecake with four layers and a dry Martini.” When queried what her plans are after that, she’s just as sure of herself. She’ll be marrying “the pig boy” (a local lad who seems to have no other name) and then “going by plane to Mexico City. Or to Hollywood. It isn’t decided yet.”
“Gorse Is Not People” eventually found a home — in The New Yorker in 2008. But 54 years seems an absurdly long time to have waited for it.
Just as good are “The Birds of the Air,” about a disapproving grandmother’s visit to her daughter’s ramshackle household, and “The Big Money,” about a family’s doomed attempt to make a new start “up north” (“North” and “South” are terms as weighted in New Zealand, apparently, as they are in the U.S.). Both are fully orchestrated stories, told in a distinctive voice at a distinctive rhythm.
Frame’s descriptions have an animist vigor, whether she’s evoking precarious states of mind (“Waking up is the feeling of a bird with no scars in it flying up and up into the clear sky”) or picturing blackberries on which the autumn sun has “lavished a shoeshine.”
Frame famously suffered mental breakdowns and was institutionalized as a young woman, and the lilt and color of her observations sometimes feel as if they could only have come from a mind slightly off-kilter. Everything she sees seems half whimsy, half X-ray insight.
Some tales in the book are sketchy. But the overall quality, surprisingly, is higher than Frame’s earlier official best-of, “Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame.”
That makes “Between My Father and the King” a perfect introduction to her.
Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.