In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147134, RRP $35, Available now.
In the Memorial Room is the second posthumous Janet Frame novel to be published, after Towards Another Summer which I thoroughly enjoyed, both deemed too personal or too “close to home” to be published while she was alive. Fortunately both break the general mold of posthumous novels as being unfinished extracts.
In the Memorial Room follows Harry Gill, winner of the annual Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship, a “living memorial” to a dead, expatriate New Zealand poet – Margaret Rose Hurndell – which entitles him to spend six months in Menton, France, to work on his writing in a room of a villa once occupied by the dead poetess (the memorial room, natch). Sound familiar?
Frame drew on her own experiences as a Mansfield Fellow (spending six months in Menton, France, to work on her writing in a… well, you probably get the picture) to write In the Memorial Room, which apparently meant living in a social farce. Harry meets various characters in Menton, and Frame’s small details of each add a large amount of satire.
The book is imbued with a sense of hilarity, and the humour is laugh-out-loud material. Harry is constantly overlooked in Menton as the actual Fellowship winner in favour of Michael Watercress (who “looks like a real author”). Among the cast of characters he meets is George Lee, who speaks without moving his mouth and so Harry only hears one memorable phrase every time he speaks:
-Angela will be livid, he said.
I apologised and said I’d had an attack of motion sickness.
-Angela will be livid.
Eventually Harry starts to go blind, on visiting a doctor (Dr Rumor) he’s told it stems from his desire to go unnoticed. When he actually does go deaf he’s then told he’s got “auditory hibernation”. He’s like a fluttering moth, completely unsure of himself or his existence.
The writing is exactly what we expect from Frame – gorgeous, delirious and shining with delight. Her amazing ability to pile on sound and word texture is just as evident in this book.
Each day the patterns of the light in the room were different. If the sun did not shine there were no light-patterns. When the sun shone, window-shapes patterned themselves on the rust-red rug of which there were two, of equal size, square, on the polished wooden floor.
There’s also a fair dose of what I’m going to coin “Framesque WTF-ness”. As in:
Whatever the explanation I accepted my deafness with a passivity which, before the age of the raging clitoris, would have been looked on as feminine!
No, seriously, WTF?
For those who haven’t yet actually read any Janet Frame (and there are plenty, despite her many accolades), In the Memorial Room will be a wonderful introduction, lighter than Faces in the Water, less obscure and dense than say Daughter Buffalo or Intensive Care.
In the Memorial Room adds yet another dimension and more acclaim (as if it was needed) to Frame’s amazing body of work.