Prizes of Janet Frame

The Reservoir, short stories by Janet Frame (1963) Angel

I got interested in New Zealand writer Janet Frame after watching the film, An Angel at My Table (1990), based on her memoirs. Very loosely based, as some critics will have it, but it’s still a good film. Poverty, shyness, creative interests and possibly other issues marginalize Frame as much as her location far from the cultural mainstreams of the 1950s. I recently picked up one of her short story collections, The Reservoir (1963), and though I’ve not finished it, I was especially taken by the story, “Prizes.”

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought.

These words open the story, and are Frame’s most frequently quotes lines. A lifetime is packed into these seven pages, so much of innocence and its misunderstandings, of desire and disappointment and unanswered needs, but also how easily, especially in childhood, the most precious things we have, even what we are, can be sullied by the remarks and silent judgments of other people. Children may not understand what they see, but they know what they feel, often with more clarity than adults. “I did not realize that people’s actions are mysteries that are so seldom solved” our narrator says, yet the reader has no trouble parsing much that the child cannot.

The story begins in the eyes of a little girl and the style seems as simple and straightforward as a child’s essay, but the visual imagery—bright poppies, wheeling crows, a burnished dock leaf, curdled milk, boys like rabbits—creates a poetic overlay. Colors are vivid with meaning: all that is rosy, red and orange, is good and full of life; white, while clean, milky and welcome, is aggressive and unreliable; black is shame and death; and all the rest of the world is drab gray and dirty brown. As the child gets older, life seems bleaker; the hierarchy of the world and its dismal end are increasingly oppressive as she is distanced from the people around her. And still she doesn’t understand.

Poverty is the water she swims in, like a fish, without seeing it, but her poverty goes deeper, generations deep, drowning in neglect, emptied of all but a striving and observant mind. Over and over, the brightness fades and dims, she sees it, she strives for all that’s polished, gold, best, but prizes aren’t enough. It makes you wonder: Is anything?

I love Frame’s spare, poetic style, while being intrigued by a certain oddness in her vision of life in the world. This year, I’ll definitely be reading as many of her books as I can find.

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