‘Swans’ by Janet Frame:
What makes a great short story?
by Jennifer Harvey Views: 2017
Some stories linger in the imagination long after we have read them. They contain a certain power that captures our attention and holds it.
“Swans” by Janet Frame is one of those stories.
It is a layered and deceptively complex story, that combines a powerful mix of narrative voices with intensely rich descriptions, that is as mesmerising as it is disconcerting.
The first thing that strikes you about “Swans” is the apparent ordinariness of the events being described.
Mother and her two children, Fay and Totty, are preparing for a day out, dressed up in their “next best to Sunday best” and full of the nervous energy a last-minute rush brings.
Everything appears charming and hectic until Mother introduces a moment of doubt by admitting she isn’t quite sure where they are supposed to get off the train:
“We’re not to forget to get off at Beach Street. At least I think Dad said Beach Street.”
There is something very disconcerting about that line. She thinks Dad said Beach Street.
It plants a seed of doubt in the reader. Are these children safe with Mother, we wonder? How could she forget such a simple thing?
Our doubts are momentarily put to one side, however, when Totty rushes in and explains that their cat, Gypsy, appears to be dying.
Flurried and forgetful, Mother immediately takes control and asserts her authority, declaring the cat will be perfectly fine, ordering milk and warm blankets to keep the cat safe and warm until they return from their outing to the beach.
At this point Frame sets up a bewildering contrast.
She describes in beautiful detail the dark wash-house where the cat is holed up. The descriptions are full of foreboding and menace.
“No light except what came through the small square window which had been cracked and pasted over with brown paper.”
Gypsy’s eyes “bright with a fever or poison or something.”
The dusty blanket with “the folds stuck to one another all green and hairy.”
The floor, like the window, “cracked”.
The disintegration and decay of the wash-house hinting at death and lending an atmosphere of uncertainty that contrasts so sharply with Mother’s sudden assertiveness.
At this point Frame then throws the reader again by altering the narrative voice slightly.
It becomes childlike, and it is a very a disconcerting shift, because the naivety of that voice, its trusting nature, forces the reader to observe the situation from this childlike point of view; to disregard the danger, whilst at the same time, being fully aware of it.
“Mother always said things would be all right, cats and birds and people even, as if she knew, and she did know too, Mother always knew.”
It’s such a strange statement of fact coming so soon after those dark foreboding descriptions. As if Frame is pointing out to us, albeit somewhat obliquely, that Mother will not be right this time. That something will go wrong. There are too many signs.
And in the background we recall Mother’s confusion – “At least I think Dad said Beach Street” – and can only shudder at where this may lead.
All of this happens in just two short pages. Frame has created suspense and doubt and mingled it with a childlike sense of wonder and trust.
It is a disjointed form of storytelling that can unsettle some readers, because Frame requires that we hold opposing perspectives within the same story – the distance of the reader and the narrator and the innocence and wonder of the child.
Having set the scene, Frame then proceeds to bombard us with a sensory overload as the child’s wonder and excitement propels the story forward.
Frame enriches the story with a vocabulary that is both innocent and exotic:
“Oh the train and the coloured pictures on the station, South America and Australia, and the bottle of fizzy drink you could only half finish … the houses that came and went like a dream. Clackety-clack, Kaitangata, Kaitangata”
This is indeed how an excited child experiences new things and Frame captures that mood beautifully.
And it is this perspective which allows us to forget that barely a moment earlier, we were filled with a vague unease – Frame has distracted us with this wonder and excitement, made us unaware of any danger, the way a child too is unaware of it.
The pitch of a child’s voice is a very difficult thing for a writer to attain, yet Frame ensures her writing is not sentimental or patronizing by using layers of imagery and emotion, almost a stream of consciousness, to convey the simple joy of a child experiencing something exciting.
When they do finally disembark the children’s excitement and Mother’s confusion mean they are not sure if they have stepped out at the right station.
But they can hear the sea, so they carry on even though they are the only ones to disembark at the station. And once at the beach the children play and pop seaweed and gather shells, and all is well, until slowly the realization dawns.
“It was the wrong sea.”
Mother has not taken them to the correct beach. To the merry-go-rounds and ice cream parlours with the other children.
She has taken them to some other beach where the shells are “pink …like a fan …a cat’s eye. Gypsy”.
The dying cat returns to the narrative like a warning, hinting that the things on this beach are things to be wary of.
Frame builds up the tension only to release it once again as Fay carries on popping seaweed, oblivious to the mistake.
The narrative voice once more switches back to the child’s perspective:
“It was a distinguished sea, oh and a lovely one, noisy in your ears and green and blue …it was the right kind of sea”
Frame wraps us up in delight then with a multi-layered description of the beach, a sensory overload, in which the day seems to pass so quickly, so that when it is time to pack up and go home it all seems to arrive rather suddenly.
Mother decides that they shall take a different route back, across the lagoon. And are we to trust her judgement? The question arises immediately and is reinforced by what appears to be a sinister portent.
“They were going home when they saw the swans.”
And here the voice switches back to the narrator, the childish impressions vanishing, alerting us that something is about to happen.
Frame ratchets up the suspense as she describes the scenery as the light fades and night begins to fall.
“It was dark black water, secret, and the air was filled with murmurings and rustlings, it was as if they were walking into another world that had been kept secret from everyone and now they had found it.”
And you cannot help but interpret this as death. The very landscape itself is suggestive of some underworld, some hidden place.
You wonder perhaps if the very landscape is going to swallow them up. The swans, black and sinister, are described as being like the night, as if the night had shifted shape and transformed into black birds.
And a strange lyrical dreamy tone settles over the story then as the landscape enters into the narrator like “a secret sea that had crept inside your head forever”, the journey home seeming to pass unnoticed so that for one moment you are unsure what it is that has happened.
Has the landscape, the night, the sea, those swans absorbed them all? Or is this just the dreamy experience of a tired child after a long day at the beach?
You cannot be sure. Not until the every last lines when everything is gathered up in just a few short sentences.
“Everything found, train and sea and Mother and Father ….. And Gypsy? But when they got home Gypsy was dead.”
It’s a strange ending.
It takes us back to the start of the story, home to Gypsy and to Father. But things are not completely circular.
That certainty of the child, that adults know things, that they are always right, somewhere along the way has been lost.
It was lost out at sea, in the lagoon, on the wrong beach, where they played and popped seaweed, while Gypsy lay dying after all, alone in the dark of the wash-house.
Have you read “Swans” by Janet Frame? If so, why not tell us what you think about it. Alternatively, read about Janet Frame and her remarkable life over at her website.
Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.