This is the last of the novels I bought in New Zealand at the beginning of the year, and the woman at the second-hand bookstore said I chose well. Janet Frame is a towering figure in New Zealand, and her wiki page (I know, I know, I’m a terrible person) says she is famous for almost having a lobotomy and for eschewing the New Zealand realist tradition. Certainly the latter is true in this novel. This is a feast for the uncanny and unreal fanatics out there, constantly forcing the reader to question what is real and what is not.
Mavis Halleton has survived the deaths of two husbands, and in an attempt to get her life back on track, and to get her writing back on track, she goes to America to visit some old friends. There she expects to live in a quiet house while her friends are on holidays and get back into writing. What happens, though, is unexpected. Her friends die, and four uninvited guests turn up on the doorstep, wanting to stay at the house. Reluctantly, Mavis lets them in, and so begins a tale of five people living in close proximity, but never truly knowing one another.
I can’t remember a text I’ve ever read that so carefully – and indeed brilliantly – blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. Many authors mine their own lives for their work – and many even “appear” in their own work with characters named after themselves that bear more than a passing similarity to their writer. But Janet Frame doesn’t bother with any of these devices. She is a character in her novel. There is no question of this. And I’m inclined to believe she is not hiding behind any affected mannerisms or speech patterns or anything else – this is what a Janet Frame autobiography would look and feel like. As far as I’m concerned, Mavis and Frame are interchangeable, though I’m certainly no Frame expert, so someone please correct me if I’m way off here.
On the first page, our narrator proclaims that she has three identities – Violet Pansy Proudlock; Alice Thumb; and Mavis Furness Barnwell Halleton. It is this last identity with whom we spend most of our time throughout the novel. Her last three surames come from having been married twice – both husbands died, though Mavis seems somehow emotionally detached from these events. She wants to write again, to feel the slow of story running through her veins, the feel of her mind and imagination working again.
The plot, such as it is, picks up when Mavis goes to visit some friends in America. After arriving in America, she is told that her friends actually died in a freak earthquake, and their will declares that the house – and everything inside – should be given to Mavis. Of course, Mavis cannot quite understand how or why this has come about, and with four guests about to arrive, she does the only thing she can think of – let them come, and look after them for a while.
When the four guests turn up, the novel shifts gears. It is almost – but not quite – as though all we read up to this is a prologue (though it takes up almost half the word count) to a story about two couples interacting, doing normal human things, feeling normal human emotions, fighting like normal people – all while Mavis looks on, as the passive author observer. Mavis is an isolated and introverted woman. More than any other first-person novel I’ve read in a long time, she is so inside her own head, thinking about everything she does, everything everyone else does. She is deeply concerned with the writing process – paragraphs are dedicated to her thoughts about good sentences, bad sentences – but she is also concerned with story-telling as a larger concept. Much of the first half of the novel is a treatise on what Frame thinks is good storytelling – how one should construct sentences and how one should use the English language feature so heavily they could be extracted into their own tiny writing advice book.
It is not until almost the very end that Frame pulls out the big guns. A phone call comes, announcing that, actually, the owners of the house are not dead. Everything that happened at the house was a figment of Mavis’ imagination – a story she concocted in her mind. And what a story. Her own battles with depression and mental illness are clearly weighing heavily on her mind here, and the collision of storytelling, illusion and depression mingle together in a way that is both surprising and surprisingly natural. Of course writers should be interested in the inner mind – they tell lies for a living, they construct unreal worlds and situations
Did I like the book? I don’t know. To be honest, I felt it dragged on for a long time, not really going anywhere, despite the occasional paragraph of brilliant insight . But then that twist comes, and it all falls into place. I didn’t see it coming at all, but now that I think about it, it was perfectly signposted. Living in the Maniototo demands a rereading – even typing these thoughts out, there are things I still don’t understand. What is the significance of these alternate personalities introduced at the beginning? What do these four guests represent? Are they facets of Mavis’ own mind? How much of this reflects Janet Frame’s own mind? This is a novel that leaves more questions than answers, but sometimes it’s nice to be confused by your reading.