Sunday, 15 June 2008

Frankie and Stankie

Frankie and Stankie is quite different from Trapido’s other novels. While there is a dazzling kaleidoscope of incidents and impressions, this partly autobiographical novel is a much darker book than its predecessors and also quite differently structured. There is no overarching ‘plot’ and none of Trapido’s usual breathtaking weaving and turning, but instead a rapid-fire, linear build-up of scene upon scene - vignettes from domestic, school and college life in chronological sequence. If Trapido’s earlier novels were feature films, this one feels more like a documentary, but one of epic proportions.

Dinah and her elder sister, Lisa, are growing up in 1950s/early 1960s South Africa, in a liberal white family. The political tensions and increasingly repressive racial laws form a constantly unfolding backdrop, the deepening horrors thrown into stark relief by the routine, institutionalised prejudice displayed by Dinah’s teachers, schoolmates and neighbours. Everyone else’s casual acceptance of racial prejudice is met with increasing bewilderment by Dinah, whose family, with its mixed European heritage, is set apart from both the British colonialist whites and the increasingly prominent Afrikaners.

As she moves from girlhood to adolescence, Dinah falls in love with both English literature and fashion – and her relationships with books, clothes and friends are minutely and engagingly explored. Trapido set out along a very dangerous path when she chose to counterpoint the horrors of Apartheid with the frothy trivia of a teenage girl’s daily preoccupations. In less sure hands such a risky undertaking could seem distasteful, but thankfully Trapido carries it off brilliantly. Her wry humour is so clearly informed by a deep, clear-eyed understanding of the political realities of the time that she never loses her footing:

‘Jenny and Dinah have decided on the look . . . They’ll have pale make-up and pale lipstick and pale crisp lawn and pale sheer stockings the colour of buttermilk. They’ll be visions as pale as desert stand . . . And then, that month, just as they set foot on the campus, the police turn their guns on an unarmed and peaceful crowd . . . They shoot and shoot until there’s no one left in the square – that is, no one who isn’t already a corpse.’

By the end of the novel, Dinah’s dissenting views have matured to the point where she has no choice but to leave South Africa – the alternative is arrest – and she embarks upon a new life in London:

‘So Dinah’s four years at university coincide with a dramatic downturn in the texture of national life. It leaves her with ongoing feelings of moral discomfort and unease. Dinah is feeling out of tune, because the mass of the white student body is clearly hell-bent on having a good time. And it’s only if you’re a weirdo that you don’t feel up for it. Dinah is always feeling that she’s got no right to a good time. Because how can she claim any right to such a thing, when all around her most people have got not rights at all? And everything that’s on offer for her is set up at their expense? Plus, right now, you can’t get into the lecture halls for the Saracen armoured vehicles which are lining the university main access. Soldier boys in heavy boots are tramping up the library stairs.’

For me, Frankie and Stankie educated as much as it entertained, amused as much as it horrified, yet I never sensed the balance faltering once. I loved it. How could one not love a book which describes the revelation of discovering Jane Austen thus:

‘At the end of every day Miss Barnes chooses a book and reads it aloud . . . one day the book is Pride and Prejudice and it’s like nothing she’s ever come across before. The language is like watching a flying kite. It’s like being lifted off the ground . . . Not one of the [other] books quite throws at Dinah, as Pride and Prejudice does, how dialogue can lift and dance on points, how sentences can shine and crackle with a concentrated energy and a sharp crystal intelligence. So listening to Miss Barnes read it is like falling in love. It’s like walking on air. It fills Dinah’s mind with a new kind of music. Language is all the music she’s never learned to play. Language is all the ballet steps she’s never learned to dance. And maybe what she loves best of all is the book’s disregard for any "description". "Description" isn’t there. It’s expendable. It’s burned away. All that’s left is dexterity and concentration. Pride and Prejudice is real life, but all transfigured, and dancing in a box.’

'Real life, transfigured and dancing in a box' - not a bad description of Trapido's own writing, if you ask me.


Motheratlarge said...

Interesting, this idea of the lone voice brave enough to protest against the moral majority. Goodness knows when will next have a chance to do much reading, but will keep this book lodged for future reference. I enjoyed your review, anyway. Maybe that's enough for me. Makes me feel I've broadened my horizons a little bit!

Love the pictures of beach huts, sea glass and beach. But what is TBTA?

Juliet said...

Hi and thanks - I certainly didn't set out to be a lone voice and I hope that offering a minority viewpoint doesn't make me 'immoral'! It worried me, last week, that people felt they needed to *apologise* for expressing views here which differed from mine on the issue of age-banding on children's books. I happened to be with the majority on that issue, but the cogently argued 'dissenting' voices certainly broadened the debate and forced me to re-examine my own views more thorougly, and that is always something to be welcomed (it certainly is on Musings, anyway). It was last week's experiences which made me decide to air my personal response to that particular book here (normally, if I don't enjoy something, I say little or nothing and move on). This blog has absolutely no agenda, so anyone who wishes to point out the errors in my thinking is more than welcome to do so!

Re 'TBTA' - I've been asked this question several times in the last few days, so have just devoted tonight's post to a full explanation.

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of dissenting voices, I'm a big Trapido fan who couldn't get to grips with this one, maybe because it was so different. I think it was something to do with the style. The pages I read felt somehow like preamble and I was waiting for the 'real' story to start. I obviously need more patience!
Loved 'Brother of ..' to bits.

Juliet said...

Hi Alison - yes, Trapido's other books take readers off into another sphere right from the start and this one has a very different feel. It's more of a train journey than a rollercoaster ride and I can imagine that anyone who fell upon it on publication anticipating the usual Trapido experience could well have been disappointed. When I picked it off the TBR pile I wondered why it could possibly have been languishing there so long and concluded that I must have read a review at the time which put me off (I don't remember . . . it's an age thing!). 'Brother of ...' remains one of the most extraordinary debuts I've ever read (twice!).

Anonymous said...

I actually heard Trapido speak not so long ago in a local library (think that's when I bought the book). She was quite frail but gave a good impression of her writing method - intuitive I think is the best description!

Motheratlarge said...

Hi again Juliet, gosh, I've followed the age banding debate only superficially, it's not something I have strong feelings about, though I did leave a comment on a friend's site about it. In the earlier comment on this posting I was referring to your analysis of the young heroine in the Trapido book. Sorry, did it come across as me commenting on something else? Sorry, not what I meant. About to give birth. Head can barely cope with shopping/finishing work/looking after self and daughter - age banding much too complex to contemplate!

PS - Thanks, clear now on TBTA. You must really love where you live. And no wonder, looking at the pictures.

Juliet said...

Hi Helen- - sorry, no it wasn't you, it was me, being too stupid to realise which post you had left a comment on! I'd been answering some other on a different post about 'dissenting voices' and so I gave yours the same treatament. Idiot moi! Gave birth six and a half years ago - head *still* unable to cope with shopping/working/looking after self and children, let alone this complicated business of posting the right answers to the right blog comments. But NB, one very good thing about being a 'more mature' mother is that just as soon as one is forced to stop blaming pregnancy and childbirth for one's mental/social/domestic inefficiencies, one can start blaming Being of a Certain Age! Which is quite handy when one is as permanently befuddled as I am . . .

And PS, yes it is lovely here, but to tell you the truth, I have always wanted to live in Edinburgh!