The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Designs from Dreams
Designs from Dreams. Faces in the Water is the first product of that commandment. It is a documentary not a novel, but in the context this hardly matters. Istina Mavet, a made-up character with a made-up name, spends three separate periods in hospitals in both Islands. The horror of her experience is brought home to us unbearably, partly by factual reporting and partly by an understructure of symbolism. The picture is of Inferno, in which there is no communication between beings imprisoned in themselves, and no hope of salvation.
The Edge of the Alphabet takes up the story of Toby Withers, the epileptic son in Owls Do Cry. The title points to another passage in Janet Frame's essay, "In my family words were revered as instruments of magic." The novel is set as the manuscript of Thora Pattern ("I . . . live at the edge of the alphabet where words like plants either grow poisonous tall and hollow ... or show luminous.") Thora makes "a journey of discovery through the lives of three people, Toby, Zoe, Pat", of whom the first two also live "at the edge of the alphabet" where human beings have lost the power to communicate. Toby and Zoe meet on a passenger ship to England (satirised with relish), and in London come upon Pat, a bus driver. But Pat cannot help them to cross from "that" world to his normal one. Zoe kills herself. Pat changes his job, becoming a "stationery supervisor in a large store", page 128 where blank pages speak to no one. Toby returns to New Zealand. And Thora, who has written this story in her "secret writing", decides she must stop and begin to live outside it. But she too is unable to communicate in the normal world: "One day we who live at the edge of the alphabet will find our speech. Meanwhile our lives are solitary." Perhaps the key to this extraordinary, haunting book is the poetic passage in italics in the third section of Part One. I quote the ending:
Will Time publish us too as grotesque, purposeless,
beyond the range of human language, between the pages of ice
turned and torn uncuriously by the illiterate years
till our story is sealed at last
till no human mind remains to trace
the compelling reason,
the marginal dream?
The writing in this novel has a more subtle imaginative sharpness than anything we have had for years; look, for instance, at the last paragraph of Section twenty-seven in Part Three, describing Zoe's winter in London.