The Adaptable Man
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by Janet Frame
This occasionally playful novel, first published in 1965, centres on the English village of Burgelstatham and examines how its inhabitants deal with the changes in society and technology that small communities faced in the mid sixties. The title refers to the ideal that one of the characters who sees himself as a man of the times trying to uphold this in his life, that everything from reading tastes to moral judgements should be spur of the moment decisions. Frame contrasts this view with those of other characters such as the Reverend Aisley Maude who is so set in his ways that he is unable to make a change in his life. He feels more comfortable with Anglo-Saxon poetry than modern prayer and daydreams of living like St Cuthbert in quiet seclusion. Having recently lost his wife, his health and his faith Aisley has come to stay with relations recover and decide where to go now.
Frame concentrates on characterisation in this novel, focusing on the reactions thoughts of her intriguing assortment of characters to the extent that the plot is almost non-existent. Actions, such as a murder take one line to describe but the characters' internal reactions to events fill the remainder of the novel. The characters that Frame presents are memorable for the depth that she brings to their personalities. This is especially true in the case of Botti Julio, the Italian farm worker whose comical repertoire of English phrases develops into a powerful embodiment of the hard ships of life that he faced in the light of his meaningless murder, face down in a pond on the outskirts of a small English village.
This pessimism regarding the ability of people to influence their own fate explains the lack of direction that this novel suffers from in its latter stages. There are no resolutions or coherent plans of action, only unexpected turns of events that leave characters broken and weary. This said the black humour that Frame injects along with the finely crafted characters offer real pleasure for the persistent reader.