For years, I’ve been meaning to read Janet Frame. The New Zealand writer best known for Angel at My Table, (the middle book for her autobiographical trilogy) has such an impressive ovuere encompassing, novels, short stories, poetry, essays as well as the aforementioned autobiography that I was always a little intimidated. I did not know where to begin. Teachers, colleagues and other writers all had their opinions, all different. It seems that Ms. Frame’s work is such that it resists consensus.
One recent Saturday at my local bookstore, I just bought the first thing I saw by her. It’s worth reminding myself that it usually is just that easy.
A State of Siege, Ms. Frame’s sixth novel, is as sublimely simple in its construction as it is audaciously complex in its execution. The protagonist Malfred Signal has moved away from her family and all she knows to start a new life. The freshly retired art teacher has sought out a wild setting that she hopes will help her see things anew. She wants to paint something novel, something transcendent and thereby transcend her own life.
Her first night in her new home is difficult. There is a knocking at her door. She’s already been warned by a couple of locals about the “element” that exists there. As she lays awake in the grip of fear, this intruder begins to take on the benign yet insidious form of the life she wanted to leave behind. Family, a former student, an old lover are all able to assume a presence in the shape of this intruder. Ms. Frame slips the reader into this psychological state slowly until like Mally he finds himself immersed in it.
She does so by taking the most common spectres we encounter and transformimg them. The manner in which she describes silence and light and shadows really is, I think, the key to inducing this state in her readers. They have form and weight. Not merely part of the atmosphere nor solely symbolic, they allow the reader to experience the difficult night of Ms. Signal. It is a novel as much lived as read.