Are you are wondering what to give to someone this Christmas, that friend or relative who has everything except a stylishly bound and beautifully illustrated book from New Zealand's greatest writer? Look no further than The Mijo Tree, a little fable for adults by Janet Frame on big things like ambition, suffering, betrayal and hope.
Frame wrote the story in 1957 when she was 32 and living in Ibiza. The hand-bound manuscript remained locked away for the remainder of her life. It is the fifth and last of Frame's manuscripts to be published posthumously and the Frame Literary Trust is to be congratulated for sharing this treasure with the reading public. It was never intended to be a novella; this is the term the publishers used, perhaps to avoid confusing readers who need their literature clearly categorised. But as Frame-lovers know, categorising her work is a risky business, and The Mijo Tree is no exception.
The book shows again the breadth of her talent; that she could tell a simple, tragic tale that appears at first to be written for children but becomes a dark allegory for pride, pain, disloyalty and death. It has been suggested that the story is Frame's reflection on the end of a love affair, but that is not the point. The point is that the story encapsulates the emotional reality of the adult world mixing a little bit of goth with a lot of charming animism. It is reminiscent of the stories of Apirana Ngata, in which plants and animals communicate, and the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. It's full of Frame's wry humour too. The mijo seed tells a bird contemptuously, "I see you have been nourished on fairy-tales." What also makes the book a valuable addition to anyone's collection are the exquisite black and white illustrations by Deidre Copeland; her drawings cleverly evoking the look and feel of an old-fashioned story book with a scary edge.
Speaking on Arts on Sunday, Frame's literary executor and niece, Pamela Gordon, speculated that Frame did not send the manuscript to her publisher because of its personal nature. Certainly, it is easy to read it in this context, with the mijo seed representing the author, and the tree's blossom her burgeoning talent. However the text also reflects universal truths for us all - our dreams, desires, failings and hopes - all spelled out in Frame's luscious poetic language.
Who could blame her for her reticence, given her suffering at the hands of the psychiatric profession and critics who continue to scrutinise her work for signs of madness? It brings to mind R D Laing's argument that the family is the place where madness is constructed in one individual who is set up to represent the mental instability of its other members. If one could imagine the New Zealand literary community as a family, then Frame is the sister labelled mad in order to conceal the madness of the rest.
Go out and buy this book, if not for someone else, then for yourself. Relish its smooth cover, beautiful illustrations and gorgeous language. You will return to it again and again.