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Book review

‘Between My Father and the King’ by Janet Frame

pablo amargo for the boston GLOBE

The late New Zealand literary master Janet Frame’s inimitable voice — poetic, acerbic, piercing — is as fresh now as a half-century ago, when her stories and novels were drawing international attention. The 28 stories in her new posthumous collection are a reminder of her legendary storytelling gift and of the miraculous ways in which her life as a writer evolved.

Frame was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic in early adulthood. Beginning in 1945, she spent eight years in and out of psychiatric institutions, enduring 200 electroshock treatments. (She describes this period in her autobiography as “a concentrated course in the horrors of insanity.”) She was saved from a lobotomy when her first collection, “The Lagoon and Other Stories,’’ won the 1952 PEN-sponsored Hubert Church Memorial award.

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Frame went on to become a groundbreaking author, original in language and subject matter, astute at revealing hypocrisy and brutality, particularly as it arose in lives of women and marginalized people like the patients she encountered during her stays in psychiatric wards. She was honored with the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989.

The stories in this new collection revisit the people, places, and concerns she explored in the work she published in her lifetime — 12 novels, four story collections, a poetry collection, and three volumes of an award-winning autobiography that were combined in Jane Campion’s 1990 film, “An Angel at My Table.’’

The collection spans her 40-YEAR career, beginning with her first publication in 1946. “University Entrance” is a simple story, narrated by a schoolgirl nervous about asking her father for two guineas for the college entrance fee. The dread of violence underpinning the story — “It was silly, you supposed, to be frightened of Dad” — builds to a churning suspense before the end.

The title story is a masterpiece of compression as haunting in its echoes of the “Great War” as a Wilfred Owen poem. One of the 15 previously unpublished gems in the collection, it was inspired by A LOAN Frame’s father’s RECEIVED from the king — 50 pounds to purchase furniture and household goods — which was forgiven upon his return from World War I. Told in a child’s wondering voice, it ends with a sardonic twist, as the father composes a tit-for-tat annotated list to the king: “Back, shrapnel in; lungs, remains of gas in; nights, nightmares in; days, memories in.”

Other stories reveal Frame’s sensitive take on childhood. “The Plum Tree and the Hammock” revolves around two sisters harvesting fruit from a tree that overhangs the neighbor’s yard. In “Gavin Highly,” Frame describes a brother and sister bringing food to a man on the verge of homelessness who is “in league with oysters” but not with humans. “The Birds of the Air” shows how a surprisingly strict grandmother’s first visit, ruined when the children are impudent, leaves the narrator feeling “very lonely, as if I lived under a separate sky.”

“Gorse Is Not People,” written in 1954, reflects Frame’s time in mental asylums. Her editor at the literary magazine Landfall rejected the story as “too painful to print.” Its protagonist is Naida, who has lived in a mental hospital since age 10 because she is a dwarf. First she was put in “the ward where they put people who were strange in shape and ways,” Frame writes. After she turned 15 and started noticing boys, she was moved to a locked ward. As Naida approaches her 21st birthday, she anticipates that she will be free, an adult at last, able to love and live on her own. The reality she faces, Frame makes clear, is grim FOR SHE WAS IN A PLACE “where, it was said, people stayed forever.”

The narrator of “I Do Not Love the Crickets,” a previously unpublished story written in the early 1970s, is, like Frame, a writer. “When I’m writing I feel I must start with the idea that I love the people I’m writing about,” she observes. But, she adds tartly, she finds that harder as she grows older. Watching her new neighbors, second-home owners north of Auckland, she can’t help but feel annoyed. “What boring lives, I think. What ugly useless boring empty soulless lives.” The solution, Frame writes, “is to separate art from life.” Then, in a literary sleight of hand, she casually reveals the magical transition through which the author inhabits the skin of another — in this case a cricket:

“I am interested in the stick insect though I do not love it. This is outside the kingdom. Within, as a stick insect, I am almost impossibly frail as I lie close to an almost identical blade of grass. I am alive, I have legs and a breathing body, and eyes on stalks, exposed, vulnerable.”

Frame’s is an acute vision, attuned to the full spectrum of human experience. The kingdom of her spacious imagination is fully displayed in this collection. And it arrives with a characteristic ironic twist. “[W]e know that Frame deliberately left work unpublished during her lifetime,” her trustees, Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold, write in the book’s preface. “She often remarked of this decision, ‘. . . I think posthumous publication is the only form of literary decency left.’ ”

Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at janeciab@gmail.com.
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