Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 3. 1969.
Books — Semi-detached Suburban
Janet Frame: The Rainbirds, a novel published by Pegasus, Christchurch. Price $2.75.
All Of Janet Frame's books are written from "inside" the characters presented. Sometimes the identification process is more direct and the personalisation of character is very strong and in some of her books such as The Adaptable Man and The Rainbirds Miss Frame attempts to throw off her own domination of the characters and give them a separate existence of their own. Excellent as this method would seem to be, Janet Frame by deserting her characters tends at the same time to leave them as rather lifeless, colourless boring people and it is difficult for the reader to feel any sympathy with the characters outside the immediate confines of the plot.
The Rainbirds are a family of four New Zealanders, Godfrey the man having emigrated from England in search of sun and a "new life" in the colonies. He is knocked down by a car one evening and taken as dead to hospital. He wakes up from an unrecognised coma in the hospital mortuary to find that sufficient time has elapsed for funeral preparations to be well advanced and that his family is alreday beginning to adapt to his "death".
The traditional trappings of mourning have been unearthed, his clothes given away, his coffin prepared, his family enveloped in the comfortable warmth of sympathy. His sister Lynley has travelled from England to be at his "funeral" and to recover and relate the memories of her earlier life with Godfrey.
He returns to his Family eager to continue his life, but for his family the reintroduction is difficult and Godfrey's guilt grows as he lingers on his experience and his enthusiasm for life diminishes. He has become an oddity, a "handicapped" person, a modern Lazarus, a constant reminder to everyone of their ultimate destiny. He loses his job, his children, his friends and ultimately his wife.
But from the beginning it is impossible to feel much concern for the Firebirds— they are probably not supposed to be likeable. The two children never really become personalities in their own right. In fact it makes little difference which of them is speaking because they both say the same things. They are children concerned with the things of childhood and their final destinations when the family breaks up—the welfare home and being boarded out with Aunt Lynley, which seem quite reasonable solutions though no blame for the forgone events can be attributed to the children.
Beatrice, the wife, has been summed up by the author well in advance of the events in the plot. She is an amalgamation of all thinge—selfish, shallow, kindhearted, womanly, concerned with convention, her house, her husband, her children—in fact never unusual or particularly interesting. Her reactions to her husband's homecoming are normal—kindness, protectiveness, annoyance.
Godfrey, immigrant, travel clerk, husband, father, good neighbour, has been absorbed into the New Zealand quarter-acre section, sun, scenery, beaches, clubs, suburbs. His "rebirth" opens his eyes to the limits of his environment but with his rejection and his own apathy and total involvement in himself the external environment comes to mean nothing and his having conditions and relationships very little.
Lynley his sister is probably the most interesting of the characters. She has the external features of one of Janet Frame's more promising characters such as Malfred Signal in A State of Seige. She is middle-aged, undeniably lonely, and finds the adjustment to the New Zealand situation as difficult as her readjustment to the adult Godfrey. She leaves the house when she realises her presence is unrequired and unwanted and her shift to Auckland would seem to spell the end to her relationships with Godfrey the man, who she tends to separate from Godfrey the child.
The novel begins slowly so that we can absorbs the domestic suburban situation and speedily closes with the complete break up of same. Since the plot is slight the author relies mostly on the visible and psychological reactions of the characters to convey to us the physical and mental rises and falls of the family group and the individuals composing it. There are several lengthy pieces of dialogue where every spoken sentence is reinterpreted by the speaker and sometimes by the listener(s). Janet Frame's concern with detail and language is as great as ever but this cannot make up for the general dullness and dissatisfaction the reader feels about the book. It is as if Janet Frame has deliberately refused us access to the real "inside" of the subjects' minds and her non-involvement with them has given her power to describe their actions, feelings and thoughts but lacking the unity of interpretaion has left them as one-dimensional figures.
Miss Frame wrote this book while on a Robert Burns Fellowship in Dunedin and she has taken full advantage of her time there to explore and upturn Dunedin city for us. The rather distracting shorthand form and brevity in which the book is written encompass the reader in the surroundings, but alienates him from the characters. I found none of the black humour of the style adopted by some present day writers, but a novel full of weariness, full of pathos, full of apathy and self-interests; but not unhappily as full of the rich Janet Frame, emotional and intellectual involvement so many of her novels have lead us to expect.