‘Swans’ by Janet Frame

It takes a lot for me to recommend a story in which a cat dies. I hope I’ve not spoiled this one, but I think it is obvious that the cat will die after the first few lines. I would only ever recommend a story in which a cat dies if it were written by a superlative writer, and I consider Janet Frame one of the best writers. Frame’s short stories tend to be more realist than a lot of her other work, although she is best known in the UK for her more realist novels like Owls Do Cry and Faces in the Water as well her memoirs. Personally I prefer her at her most strange such as in Scented Gardens for the Blind and The Edge of the Alphabet. Frame muddles reality in a way that most writers would never dare, she takes what isn’t clear and she pushes through, she won’t coddle you, you have to meet her where she is in her mind. In ‘Swans’ (another gem from a book once owned by my mother, several decades ago) a mother takes her children to the beach, but they end up at the wrong beach. It’s a very short story, but in it Frame gives the reader all the proof and tools needed to dissect, and eviscerate, the mother for the simple mistake of getting off the train at the wrong stop. She sows tiny seeds of doubt in the mother’s ability and possibly sanity throughout and all the while plays with language the way a child might. She has the rare ability to make words on the page reverberate in your brain, sounds playing off one another. I equally admire Frame so much for the way she writes mental illness and also children’s perspectives, which perhaps only possible given her own history.

First published 1951 in The Lagoon and Other Stories and collected in The Secret Self: Short Stories by Women J.M. Dent & Sons 1987

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