Book review: Gorse is Not People by Janet Frame

cv_gorse_is_not_peopleThis is in bookshops now.

One of my most comforting memories of primary school is being read to aloud. With our head on our desks, the warmth of the radiator on our backs and the smell of wet jackets filling the air our teacher read to us and let our imaginations roam.

It’s a similar feeling of homeliness, warmth and comfort I get when I read Janet Frame. I first read Faces in the Water in my first year at Art School; standing in the ground floor of Dunedin’s Central Library I wanted something to read and the name ‘Janet Frame’ seemed familiar but I didn’t know why.

As I devoured that book, then her three-book autobiography, then Owls Do Cry, the New Zealand described – particularly the southern most parts – felt so familiar and so real to me. I wanted to keep parts of these magical books so copied out passages about jars of marigolds and tiled floors of sandwiches and roses growing over carpets and fire guards into a special notebook so I could remember them and keep them close; the best parts.

Since that first reading I’ve firmly held Janet Frame as my favourite author and worked through most of her catalogue over time.

It’s with some embarrassment that I tell you that Penguin Books sent me a review copy of Gorse is Not People in August last year. And with some unashamed greediness that I admit to purposefully reading it slowly, savouring its stories and words so it might (almost) never end.

Gorse is Not People brings together 28 short stories by Janet Frame that span the length of her career. None of these stories has been published in a collection before – several are previously unpublished works in their own right and others have been published in well-known magazines such as The New Yorker.

This is the stuff of classic Frame. Rich layered writing with immediately imaginable characters – at times with a dose of fairytale and more than once with a desperate and deep sadness.
Readers of Faces in the Water will immediately identify with the grim prospects of Naida in the title story and the shabby below-par evening activity of a film showing when it’s too light to see the film – as  described in ‘A Night at the Opera.’

“So it was decided to show films in Park House itself, in the dayroom, after the more violently uncontrollable patients had been put to bed. There would be no screen. The walls, though gravy- and sausage-stained, and stuck with bits of apple pie, were of a light colour, but unfortunately there were no blinds, and the daylight at that time of year was not of a secretive nature but outspoken and honest, and preferred the company of the sky to being tucked down between hills. Our bedtime was half past six. How could we see a film in that light? ‘Your bedtime can be extended, an hour perhaps,’ the matron said graciously. The first film, it was decided would be shown in a week’s time, on a Tuesday.” [A Night at the Opera]

There’s a lot here too for fans of To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City as fuller stories and adaptations are made from pieces of these works – the story ‘Dot’ most memorably as Frame takes her childhood love for a local children’s newspaper columnist and gives it a sinister edge.

Stories like ‘The Wind Brother’ and ‘The Friday Night World’ have a fairytale quality to them – magical overtures that would appeal to readers of Grimms and Margaret Mahy. This truly is a book for all seasons and readers.

In addition to this books marvellous content, Penguin has done a wonderful job on the production of Gorse is Not People. The small, grey hardcover book with a Toss Wollaston jacket cover feels special – a book to be treasured, to be looked after and one that shouldn’t be rushed.

Five stars from me. A must for Frame fans as well as people looking for magical short stories to spark the imagination and create lasting memories of how great reading can really be.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary, Web Editor at Booksellers NZ

Gorse is Not People: New and Uncollected Stories
by Janet Frame
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143567707

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