The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame”

Janet Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy when her first collection of short stories won a prestigious New Zealand literary award in 1952. Fortunately, the superintendent of the psychiatric hospital where she was a patient had a literary bent. When he heard about the Frame’s win, he cancelled the operation. Frame’s writing literally saved her.

Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame is a survey of Frame’s short fiction, including stories from that first collection, The Lagoon , and three subsequent collections, along with four stories never previously collected. Frame, the subject of Jane Campion’s 1990 biopic An Angel at my Table , occupies herself mainly with the frustrating reality of how little we can know of others’ thoughts and how much we assume. Many of her characters end up emotionally isolated because they have never exchanged childhood intuition and honesty for adult subterfuge. Those who do make that bargain are left to repeat platitudes that will never reassure them: “They were intelligent, they understood each other.” Frame’s characters often equate material comfort with emotional safety-one story is titled “Insulation.”

For being written as early as the ‘50s, these tales have uncanny currency: The title story explores the emotional emptiness of the aptocratic life . Several young protagonists chafe under their parents’ attempts to name their talents and interests and their dependence on their children’s achievements as a primary source of self-esteem. And Frame describes those parents with biting insight and unexpected, intimately observed details that suggest she knows whereof she speaks.