By Idra Novey
My fantasy home sits just over the hill from a town on New Zealand’s North Island. I’ve never been to New Zealand, however, and the rolling hills that I’m imagining are likely a hybrid of the open landscape in rural Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and the entrancing images in Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table.
The film is based on the memoirs of Janet Frame, an extraordinary New Zealand writer whose work I discovered when I first saw Campion’s film in college. I felt an immediate connection to the scene of Janet, barefoot, reading on a bench outside her home, listening to the crickets. Leafy vines hang over the bench, creating a sense of privacy while permitting a breeze and enough sunlight for her to make out the words. To be able to sit outside and read alone, unseen by anyone, is an experience I consider near holy.
Campion shows Janet on her own, at various ages, meandering over the lush, green landscape around her family’s house. Campion also grew up in New Zealand and these shots convey how steadying being outside alone can be as you stumble through adolescence into adulthood. The homes in her films are often secluded, within walking distance of secret spots where her characters can sit alone under trees and figure out what gives them pleasure. In her most recent film, Power of the Dog, based on the 1967 western novel by Thomas Savage, one of the characters makes stealthy trips through the woods beyond the family ranch to a cave where he keeps a stash of nude magazines.
In An Angel at My Table, Campion sets a similarly character-defining scene in the woods. Janet is walking to the local swimming hole with her sister and a friend. They come across a fallen log and take turns strutting along the length of it, experimenting with walking with flair. I too once strutted across downed logs in the forest with my siblings and in my fantasy, my home would stand next to a forest — one vast enough for my children to try out new roles for themselves, and disregard their cell phones, at least for a few hours.
To feel comfortable enough in the woods for extended moments, far from judging eyes, is an aspect of home I associate with creative freedom, with those uninhibited hours, playing outside as a child, that help me work up the nerve to keep taking risks in what I write.
I watched Campion’s films repeatedly while working on my most recent novel, Take What You Need. It is set in a declining steel town in Appalachia, similar to the one where I grew up. The rural sculptor in the novel chooses to live at a remove from others — although, like Janet Frame, she’s unable to ignore the menacing townspeople. Janet is never allowed to forget that she only owns one dress and, later in the film, the townspeople conspire to institutionalise Janet against her will. No home, except in a fantasy, can remain entirely separate from the cruel forces of the larger world.
The first scene in An Angel at My Table is a bright and fleeting one. Campion gives her audience a brief, joyful shot of a bare-legged baby Janet, toddling through high grass outside her family’s home. She hasn’t yet received any warnings from her father about the stifling expectations of people in town. For now, she can follow her intuition and meander in any direction. That kind of instinctual wandering, over grass and alone, is what drew me to the novel as an art form — I get to dream up a fantasy home and return to it, each morning, in my mind.
Idra Novey is the author of 'Take What You Need' and 'Ways to Disappear', both published by Daunt Books.
Photography: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy; Collection Christophel/Alamy