Thursday, April 01, 2010

The New Yorker: "Gavin Highly" by Janet Frame

Here’s another story from New Zealander Janet Frame, who died in 2004. In this one, Gavin Highly is the town oddity, a guy who is said to have lived in a rabbit burrow and invited ferrets to tea. But now he’s in a house that’s about to be condemned and in order to raise money to buy a proper house, he’s going to sell his books, which Highly says are worth a lot. “Gavin Highly collected and loved books. No one had every really seen these books, but hearsay had it that they were worth thousands of pounds . . .” So when things don’t work out quite the way he’d hoped, the people speculate about what will happen to Highly, until that question is finally answered.
Two things stand out. First, there’s the language of the story, which on first reading is obscure, as in this passage: “I did not know back then that hearts could be laid out like land and cut in two by storms coming out of the sky, or that dreams could be thrown, as Gavin Highly threw the ashes of his fire or his oyster shells or his old tins and bottles or his scraps of food, deep into the dark flowing divided heart to be buried there.”
And second, the narrative voice is of a child who observes the subject and is, in a sense, the subject, as many observer narrators are. In this case, the child and a brother take plums from Highly’s trees, but are not harassed by the man. (“I think he understood about plums.”) When Highly is down on his luck, they take him bread and treacle. And they listen with sadness to the news about the man’s desperate situation. The point of view is retrospective, and the reader understands that Gavin Highly has had a deep impact on the narrator.
I enjoyed this. It didn’t knock my socks off, but it’s a nice story. 
 April 5, 2010: “Gavin Highly” by Janet Frame

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