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Authors: Janet Frame


Owls Do Cry

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JANET FRAME was born in Dunedin in 1924. She reluctantly qualified as a teacher but secretly wanted to be a poet. Her first story was accepted for publication in 1945, and later that year she walked out of the classroom. Desperate when the authorities demanded she return to work out her bond, she attempted suicide and was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Frame spent the next ten years alternating between hospital stays and menial work, and more writing. She wrote her first book,
The Lagoon and Other Stories
, in 1946 while working as a live-in maid and studying part-time at university. When the collection was published in 1952 and won a prestigious literary prize, Frame’s doctors cancelled a lobotomy they had planned for her.

Owls Do Cry
, Janet Frame’s first novel, was published in 1957. Shortly before its publication, she left New Zealand for what would be seven years and spent most of that time in England, where her earlier diagnosis was officially overturned and her writing gained international acclaim. Frame published another ten novels, three more short-story collections, a poetry volume and a three-volume autobiography during her lifetime. Another two novels, a short-story collection and a book of poems have been published since her death. Frame’s works have been published in twenty-five languages, and her bestselling autobiography was made into the film
An Angel at My Table

Janet Frame received numerous awards and honours, including a CBE and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 1990, she became a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

Janet Frame died in 2004.




DAME MARGARET DRABBLE was born in Sheffield in 1939. She is the author of eighteen highly acclaimed novels including
A Summer Bird-Cage, The Millstone, The Sea Lady
and most recently
The Pure Gold Baby
. She has also written biographies and screenplays, and was the editor of the
Oxford Companion to English Literature
. She was appointed CBE in 1980 and made DBE in 2008.



The Lagoon and Other Stories

Faces in the Water

The Edge of the Alphabet

Scented Gardens for the Blind

Snowman Snowman:
Fables and Fantasies

The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches

The Adaptable Man

A State of Siege

The Reservoir and Other Stories

The Pocket Mirror

The Rainbirds
(published in the USA as
Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room

Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun

Intensive Care

Daughter Buffalo

Living in the Maniototo

To the Is-Land

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart

An Angel at My Table

The Envoy from Mirror City

The Carpathians

The Goose Bath

Towards Another Summer

Storms Will Tell: Selected Poems

Prizes: Selected Short Stories
(published in UK and Australia as
The Daylight & the Dust

Gorse is Not People
(published in Australia and the USA as
Between my Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories

Janet Frame in Her Own Words

In the Memorial Room

The Mijo Tree

The Text Publishing Company

Swann House

22 William Street

Melbourne Victoria 3000


Copyright © Janet Frame 1957

Introduction copyright © Margaret Drabble 2014

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

First published by Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1957

This edition published by the Text Publishing Company, 2014

Cover design and illustration by W. H. Chong

Page design by Text

Typeset by Midland Typesetting

Printed in Australia by Griffin Press, an Accredited ISO AS/NZS 14001:2004

Environmental Management System printer

Primary print ISBN: 9781922147899

Ebook ISBN: 9781922148896

Author: Frame, Janet, 1924–2004, author.

Title: Owls do cry / by Janet Frame ; introduced by Margaret Drabble.

Series: Text classics.

Other Authors/Contributors: Drabble, Margaret, 1939– .

Dewey Number: NZ823.2







A Cry of Joy and Pain
by Margaret Drabble


Owls Do Cry

A Cry of Joy and Pain
by Margaret Drabble

JANET Frame’s first full-length work of fiction,
Owls Do Cry
, is an exhilarating and dazzling prelude to her long and successful career. She was to write in several modes, publishing poems, short stories, fables, and volumes of autobiography, as well as other novels of varied degrees of formal complexity, but
Owls Do Cry
remains unique in her oeuvre. It has the freshness and fierceness of a mingled cry of joy and pain. Its evocation of childhood recalls Blake’s
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
, as well as the otherworldly Shakespearean lyric of her title and epigraph, but her handling of her dark material is wholly original. Although the story of the Withers family is sombre, indeed tragic, what remains in the reader’s
mind is the glory and intensity of the language, the heightened imagery, the brightness of an early world. She transforms the real (and at times uncomfortably identifiable) New Zealand provincial seaside town of Oamaru into a mythical and magical Waimaru, where places, events and characters are seen with the sharp remembering eye of redeeming love. This novel, which boldly confronts illness, physical and mental disability, ageing, and violent and sudden death, has a buoyancy of creativity and brightness. Some of its characters encounter defeat, but it is a song of survival.

Owls Do Cry
was first published, to much acclaim, in 1957 by Pegasus Press in New Zealand, and gained Frame an international reputation when it appeared in 1960 in the US and 1961 in the UK. Some contemporary critics at home saw this account of the life of the town and of the Withers family—the parents Bob and Amy, and their children Francie, Toby, Daphne, and Chicks—as a satire on the monochrome, monocultural, impoverished but materialistic society of post-war New Zealand, struggling slowly towards affluence. And it is true that Frame does make fun of the habits and opinions of the townsfolk, while deploying descriptions of material objects to singular effect, particularly in later passages about Chicks’ married life. In earlier sections, we learn
much of family and neighbourhood folklore and dreams—the visits of the tooth fairy ‘with a promise of sixpence’, the small silver tin of wedding cake to be put under the pillow, the adolescent longing to train to be an opera singer, the bribe of a new bicycle to ride ‘in colours, red and gold and black’, the false hopes placed in beauty aids (Wisteria Peach Bloom, Gloria Haven)—but the overall impression is not of mockery but of wonder, a childlike wonder at the often incomprehensible oddities of the world. Frame remembers exactly how schoolchildren think, how they misunderstand and understand and make free associations (the ‘nurse shark’ is a wonderful flight of fancy), but not all her prose is poetic: an unexpected everyday throwaway phrase such as ‘He was to have his tonsils out, he said, and everyone felt envious’ takes one back, wholly convincingly, to a schoolboy mindset. She surprises, and she rings true. There is comedy as well as pathos.

The novel, which covers twenty years in historic time, is, of course, now valuable as a social document, and readers (including overseas readers like myself) who remember the period that Frame is describing will recognise many references from their own past: the acid drops and aniseed balls and licorice allsorts, the hoarded Easter eggs smelling of straw and cardboard,
the sparse and sad Christmas decorations, the lavender soap and bath salts, the mothers at school functions redolent of ‘talcum and stored fur’, the first defiant pair of slacks, the names of forgotten dances, and ‘the milk-bar cowboy, the teddy-boy, hanging around the door and putting money in the nickelodeon’.

But it is not principally for its compelling realism of detail or as a period piece that we now value this book. It is not a conventional novel but a modernist masterpiece, bearing witness to Frame’s wide reading (William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Frank Sargeson, Katherine Mansfield) and to her confidence in insisting on her own idiosyncratic punctuation, her own way of telling. She was to say that she wasn’t even sure that it was a novel: it was more of ‘an exploration’. And what she explores is the deep well of her own past: her parents’ relative poverty and their pragmatic but principled stoicism and faith, the early death by accidental drowning of two of her sisters (both of whom had congenitally weak hearts), her brother’s epilepsy, her youngest sister’s survival through marriage and motherhood, her own dangerous descent into mental anguish and years of hospitalisation and institutionalisation and misdiagnosis. She revisited these themes again and again, reworking them in many different ways, as
she struggled, heroically and successfully, to come to terms with and rename her condition. She made her way through, with the help of one or two gifted and loyal professionals who became lifelong and supportive friends. In
Owls Do Cry
we see her stepping out on her long and often lonely journey of discovery and achievement.

Frame’s original chosen title was ‘Talk of Treasure’, which became the heading for Part One of the published work. On one level, this refers to the rubbish dump to which the Withers children are drawn, playing truant and seeking castaway treasures, and which becomes (perhaps a little abruptly) the scene for catastrophe, but it is clearly a metaphor for the novelist’s store of memories and images. It works well in both senses, and suggests to us an understanding of the very structure of the book: not a chronological narrative, but a flow of moments, of insights, some inspired by random words and by objects quarried from the past, excavated from the dump of the subconscious, drawn up from the well of the archetypes. The dump holds, in this case literally, poetry. The rubbish dump, or tip, features in the memoirs and fictions of many authors, for whom it has an obvious appeal: Alice Munro, in her story ‘Underneath the Apple Tree’, makes an unofficial town dump in rural Canada
the scene for an intense adolescent romance. We dig for layers of meaning, rescue broken thoughts from oblivion. Visiting the village tip by the river with my aunt in the 1940s was one of the great pleasures of my childhood. We rescued glass marbles, shards of willow pattern pottery, beads and buttons. The dump was once a universal point of reference in the history of childhood.

BOOK: Owls Do Cry
11.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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