Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2011

Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame, read by Heather Bolton

 Owls Do Cry is Janet Frame’s first full-length novel and was hailed as a critical success from the start.  First published in 1957 and recently reissued in a 50th anniversary edition (on which this audio book is based), it is the tragic story of the Withers family, from a small town in New Zealand.

The first chapters about the poverty-stricken childhood of Francie, Daphne, Toby and ‘Chicks’ will bring a lump to the throat for most readers.  The descriptions of how the ‘dirty’ children are treated is painful, especially rendered in this remarkable reading by Heather Bolton.  The local rubbish-dump is a symbol for how families like this survived in New Zealand society of the time; it is where the children play, where they find ‘treasure’, and where tragedy strikes.

The family is isolated from society and from each other.  If there is one fault in the book (and I hesitate to say this because it seems much like a perfect book to me) it is the static characterisation of Mother, stoic and inadequate.  But Bob, the father, whose struggle to pay the bills brought tears to my eyes, is a masterpiece.   Inarticulate, pressured beyond his capacity to bear it by the demands of his role of provider, he fears failure more than anything else because in his own inadequate way, he loves his family even though they disappoint him.

Francie, reckless and foolish, runs the risk of being thought ‘fast’ because she wears ‘slacks’ not suitable for the young lady her father naïvely wants her to become, but Francie just wants to have fun.  Her tragedy is so sudden it is shocking, in contrast to the slow grinding tragedy of epilepsy, which mars Toby’s life and relationships as a child and an adult at a time when the condition was ill-understood and not very treatable.   Worse yet is Daphne’s mental illness, which sees her incarcerated for long silent years, her parents forbidden to visit and wholly ignorant about how she is being treated.  ‘Chicks’, the only one of Bob’s children to marry and be ‘successful’ is a nasty snob seduced by the consumer society.  Her ‘diary’ is a  masterful denouncement of the shallow, complacent values which Frame saw as representative of New Zealand in the 1950s.

I hope I haven’t made this book sound like a misery to read.  It is not.  It is brilliantly executed and absolutely unforgettable.

Author: Janet Frame
Title: Owls Do Cry
Publisher: Bolinda Books, 2008, first published 1957
ISBN: 9781921415135
8 CDs, including a 50th Anniversary retrospective of reviews of the book
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Availability (only the audio book seems to be available):

Fishpond: Owls Do Cry


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