What are we celebrating? One of New Zealand’s finest works of fiction. Janet Frame’s debut novel, Owls Do Cry, was first released in New Zealand in 1957, before being published in the US and the UK. In 1958, it won the NZ Literary Fund Award for Achievement. This year, it was nominated to be our Great Kiwi Classic, and its themes and legacy will be debated on stage at the Auckland Writer’s Festival.
Can I have a quick synopsis? Owls Do Cry follows the fortunes – or lack thereof – of the Withers family children. Tragic Francie, forced to leave school early for work at the woollen mills; epileptic Toby, whose fits make him an outcast; imaginative Daphne, bound for an insane asylum; and baby Chicks, who will escape the family poverty but not her own destiny.
Why should I read it? For a gripping portrait of post-war child poverty and the attitudes of the time towards the mentally and physically ill – as well as insight into Frame’s own years of institutionalisation and misdiagnosis.
That all sounds a bit heavy. And that’s before we get to the missed opportunities, tragic death and wasted lives. But in her recent introduction to Owls Do Cry, Margaret Drabble emphasises the book’s 'buoyancy of creativity and brightness', and there’s a lot of unexpected comedy in this novel. Chick’s diaries of an upwardly mobile Northern housewife are satiric genius, and the children’s interpretations of a confusing adult world delightful. Plus Frame’s musical language makes even the most sombre of passages beautiful reading.
But is it relevant? Owls Do Cry has prevailed for a reason; it’s a true New Zealand classic, and its investigation into how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves is just as timely as when the book was published. Families unable to afford school uniforms, marginalisation of the elderly, the stigmatisation of mental illness – the big question could be why Frame’s themes are still issues in New Zealand society today, some sixty years on.
Do quote… "oh it was all tangled, being alive was tangled"
Don’t say… Crickey, that was a bit depressing.
The Great Kiwi Classic event will be held on Sunday 17 May, 4.30pm, at the Aotea Centre as part of the Auckland Writers Festival. More details here.