Friday, June 25, 2010

Book 9, New Zealand: "Owls Do Cry" by Janet Frame

Woot! Finally in New Zealand, with what's purported to be New Zealand's greatest book ever, according to this list.

And we're back in kickass-ville too: the strangeness and poetry of this book is Joycean, reminiscient of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", only less academic, more democratic. Basic story is simple: four dirt-poor kids, Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks Withers, grow up exploring a rubbish dump near their home in the provincial town of Waimaru. Everyone looks down on them: they're covered with crud and Toby's epileptic.

Twenty years later, Francie's dead, Daphne's mad, Toby's actually functional as a blue-collar worker and Chicks is an upper middle-class housewife who worries about making intelligent conversation about classical composers and Picasso.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

But Janet Frame writes them all with spellbinding voices: in the midst of the most mundane suburban actions of riding the train or staring at mountains or deciding whether to make chocolate or coffee cake for the guests, this stream-of-consciousness flow of dreamlike images and symbols and bits of poetry - ah, this is where the post-colonial comes in, for the characters are hard at work learning and misremembering bits from the Maori Wars and the Bronte Sisters and WH Auden and Ariel's Song from the Tempest (hence the title: "In a cowslip's bell I lie;/There I couch when owls do cry").

And oh yes the evolution of New Zealand English, which writers have told us about: the reclamation beginning with words for plants: manuka, toi-toi, kauri. Also constant references to the thick pancakes called pikelets. I spent ages looking for the paragraph in the book where they talk about finding moa bones in the dump, but it was not to be discovered.

Thoroughly recommended. Unfortunately the Library didn't have it; my boyfriend Mohan had to nick me this copy from the NUS Library. Significant other FTW!

Now I also know where Lloyd Jones got his literary ancestors from when he wrote the also very NZ poetic novel "The Book of Fame".

Isn't my map irregular though? And I'd sincerely thought when I started out that I could hop straight from Australia to New Zealand to Chile. Quite a few more Melanesian/Polynesian excursions before we become Columbus, I'm afraid.

Representative quote: Then the limping woman whom the nurse addressed as Mrs Flagiron, spread a plastic cape over Daphne's shoulders and began to cut her hair until the floor was covered with hair, and Mrs Flagiron seemed not to know when to stop. Once Daphne put her hand up to feel how much was left, but Mrs Flagiron gripped her arm and thrust it under the cape.

- She guesses, Mrs Flagiron whispered to the nurse.

Daphne sat still then, waiting for the limping woman to finish. She thought, This woman is from Greece. No, she has come from the underworld. I can tell from her thick arms that she has rowed herself across many rivers of the underworld, snipping the hair from the floating bodies and collecting it in her stainless white cloth, and storing it in her home that has many many rooms, yet she is able to use only one room, and soon will have nowhere to live for every room is filled with hair. I know her. I know her.

Next book: Konai Helu Thaman's "Hingano" from Tonga.

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