When I was little, I remember reading over and over Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Anderson’s tales – so beautiful and so sad - and I was addicted to collections of fairy stories by Ruth Manning Sanders (though I’ve never heard of her since – I must track down those books and read them again. Were they actually any good?). When I was a little older, I loved stories with a twist in the tale: Edgar Allan Poe, Roald Dahl (Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You), Kurt Vonnegut, especially ‘Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog’, Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’, W. W. Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Now I think my taste is a little more subtle, and I love short stories because quality is better than quantity – and because I recognise just how difficult it is to capture so much in so few words. The very best short story will make you sit in silence on finishing, wondering just how the writer has done it.
Such a collection is Janet Frame’s The Daylight and the Dust. This is the most comprehensive volume of her stories, and each miniature is perfectly executed. As well as being a short-story writer and novelist, Frame was also a poet, and this shows in her careful use of language and in the way she plays with it, rejoices in it. As Frame herself wrote, ‘I am a short-story addict, both reading and writing them, and I always keep hoping for the perfect story.’ One of the things I particularly love her for, and something she excels in, is capturing the viewpoint of children – the vulnerability, the rivalries, the joyfulness, the confusion, the innocent insightfulness. The way a child is an outsider in an adult’s world, but can seem all the more sensible for that.
Another reason that her short stories are so very precious is because they actually saved her. After being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, Frame spent years in unenlightened psychiatric institutions (which she writes about in An Angel at My Table, her autobiography, and in her novel Faces in the Water). Her first volume of short stories won a national literary prize, which persuaded doctors not to go ahead with a planned lobotomy.
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