Janet Frame has been on my to-read list for some years and I'm finally getting around to her. I selected Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room because it—well, I—I guess I liked the title. Fact is, I wasn't sure what this book was about before I read it. There's no blurb on the physical book itself. The description on Goodreads is about the author and reveals nothing of the book. Suddenly, with book in hand, I began to feel nervous. What was I getting myself into? Could I blindly walk into a story I knew absolutely nothing about (well, I knew it was set in New Zealand, but that's not much, is it?) So, I did an irresponsible thing: I read a review or two before cracking the cover. It worked. I learned enough to get me started. But then I began to see how maybe not knowing was beneficial. The plot-point alluded to is a bit of a spoiler. And yes, it happens in the early chapters and is essentially what this novel is about, but not knowing I think would've amped up my emotional response. Lesson learned. So, knowing this, how do I properly review this book without giving away the one thing the entire story is built upon?
Janet Frame. What attracted me to the author initially was her story, so let's start there. Frame (pen name) was born in New Zealand in 1924. Her home life was blighted by violence and the deaths of two of her sisters in separate drowning accidents. In her early twenties, Frame took a job as a teacher and continued her studies. After a suicide attempt, Frame abandoned her job and was admitted to a psychiatric ward. In the following decade, Frame was repeatedly admitted to psychiatric hospitals throughout New Zealand. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. Meanwhile, she wrote. In 1951, Frame's first book, a collection of stories titled The Lagoon and Other Stories was published. At the same time, she was scheduled to undergo an operation to lobotomize her brain. Just days before the procedure, The Lagoon... was awarded a national prize and the lobotomy was cancelled. Over the next three decades, Frame was a prolific writer and often highly regarded. She died in 2004.
So, back to the novel. Let me say that I believe elements of Frame's story can be witnessed in Yellow Flowers... in how someone can be at the brink of something huge and then have her life changed drastically. Yellow Flowers... has an intriguing premise, but the delivery is very focused on language. Frame has her own style that at times is succinct and sharp, and at other times takes form as a stream-of-conscious run-on. The plot is rather slow to develop. Yes, there's some definite character development running around this novel as well, but really, what a reader walks away with, is a poetic delivery and extensive word-play.
One must respect the wishes of the dead, she said to herself, accepting the platitudes of bereavement in the sievelike condition of mind in which the news had put her, allowing for the moment her own thoughts and feelings to fall through to the bottom of her heart so that when the remnants of the time had been thrown away her own thoughts and feelings would remain as sediment in her heart.
Yellow Flowers... is gorgeous when it's at its best; it is a bit plodding at its worst, especially in the middle where the story sags. Those who want their story to sing to them will likely devour this book. Those who want their story to soar and take them to exciting new lands will probably grow bored with the novel. Personally, I'm eager to read more from the author, but I recognize Frame is the kind of writer whose work must be doled out slowly over time.