The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Marginal Dream. Scented Gardens for the Blind, which springs from the same "marginal dream", is both less poetic and less realistic. Its world is wholly imaginary, with insistent symbols that come from deep down in Janet Frame's submerged experience. As a child of three, she records, she made up her first story. "Once upon a time there was a bird. One day a hawk came out of the sky and ate the bird. The next day a big bogie came out from behind the hill and ate up the hawk for eating up the bird."
The hawk is fate, necessity, vengeance, what you will, an image of disaster like the atomic bomb that explodes in her last chapter. And "when there are no human beings left on earth, who will name the ashes?"
Scented Gardens is about words, about sight and blindness, hearing and speech, about hallucination and reality. Three "characters" occupy the stage, blind Vera Glace (true mirror?), her daughter Erlene who is dumb, her husband Edward. He is a genealogist whose investigation of the Strang family (Strong?) is designed to prove that they will outlive disaster.
In turn each character takes the stage, but little is clarified at the rational level. Is Vera blind, or not? Is Erlene really dumb? Who is Uncle Black Beetle whom she talks to, on the windowsill? Is he the same as the psychiatrist, Dr Clapper? There are no plain answers; this is a book for individual struggle. Perhaps the starting point in a search for its meaning is Chapter eleven, in which Erlene's conversation with Doctor-Uncle-Clapper-Beetle takes us to the dictionary. One can live in it, it seems, in various apartments, "between speech and page 129 spell", or "between spectre and spindrift, between spark and spirit, seem and sprout, seek and spy, seed and squander, science and stone." Or perhaps, in "a forest in the neighbourhood of flock, flood, foliage, forgiveness and fountain."