Book Review: In The Memorial Room

By Paula Green

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Janet Frame did not allow publication of 'In The Memorial Room' during her lifetime.  Photo / Listener
Janet Frame did not allow publication of 'In The Memorial Room' during her lifetime. Photo / Listener

In The Memorial Room by Janet Frame
(Text Publishing $35)

A previously unpublished novel by Janet Frame, In the Memorial Room was written in 1974 and comes out of her experience as a Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, France.

She did not allow publication during her lifetime as she was worried certain readers may recognise an unflattering version of themselves. She was happy for it to be published posthumously, and did use some of the same characters and situations in the highly acclaimed Living In The Maniototo.

Reading this is like finding an unwrapped gift long-hidden at the back of the wardrobe. The novel is quite unlike anything else Frame penned, yet she is recognisable in every pore of every sentence and of every word. Her love of language is infectious and so, too, is her sense of humour.

This novel is like a prism that becomes something other as the light changes. It is a comedy, then fable, satire, then autobiography and, overall, uplifting fiction.

Frame has fearlessly absorbed a European way of writing, from the slowness of pace combined with delicious detail, philosophical sidetracks and the psychological interior of the main character.

Harry Gill, an accidental and self-deprecating historical novelist, has won the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship. He is off to write more fiction at Villa Florita, but he wants a change of direction - a new wit and lightness of touch (a bit like Frame herself is doing).

It is immediately apparent that the book is a parody of Katherine Mansfield and Villa Isola Bella in Menton, and Frame's own occupation of the Memorial Room along with the streets and vistas of the town.

This is one vein of Frame's wittiness - the little bridges between the real author we have celebrated for decades and the invented (poet Margaret Rose Hurndell).

The Watercress couple (I love the names) live nearby as they defend the reputation of Rose (they are related) and mould their son, Michael, into her heir apparent. This is another joy - the way Frame takes the reader deep into the head and heart of writing.

Michael looks like a real writer, Harry doesn't. Michael gets mistaken for Harry. Harry started to fade as though we are reading the fable of a dissolving writer.

In the beginning Harry believes a writer isn't "known" "until his grocer and barber have read his works without astonishment". Later on, Harry goes to the doctor with an acute pain behind his eyes and is told he has "incipient signs of intentional invisibility". In other words, he is about to vanish.

After pseudo-blindness comes Harry's deafness, and Frame's philosophical intricacies on the presence, absence, truth and elusiveness of writing are a delight.

Yet the novel is grounded in the intimate details of Menton.

Each morning Harry reads a curiosity-driven list of things in Nice-Matin from deaths to births, from temperatures to television (he never watches it), to what is on the radio (he never listens) to foreign news and traffic accidents, from advertisements to the lost and found. Then he can start writing.

The conclusion is daring, like a jazz riff on beginnings and endings. The author is thinking while she plays, and playing while she thinks.

This is a novel layered with vulnerability, intelligence, pain, joy and finely judged humour. I loved it - there is much to offer those familiar with Frame's work and a perfect starting point for those yet to read one of our treasured writers. I am neither grocer nor barber, but I look upon this work with astonishment.


Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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