Biography, Book Review

Book Review: Janet Frame, An Autiobiography


Like many people, I “discovered” New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s works through the Jane Campion film, An Angel at My Table.   I felt like I’d stumbled on a soul sister. Janet Frame’s life and works are an amazing discovery of a writer finding herself despite grinding poverty, personal setbacks and more.

Frame’s autobiography pictured above includes her three autobiographical works: To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City.  I almost stopped reading the book at the end of To the Is-Land because it was so painful. Frame is the second child in a family of five, four girls and one boy. She writes of her earliest memories living in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression when despite her hard-working parents, the family never seemed to be warm, never seemed to have enough clothes, shoes or food. Her parents drowned half their pets (that was the part I couldn’t read past at first); if I read one more sentence about sacks of kittens being drowned or her beloved pet dog drowned because the health inspector said they couldn’t keep another dog, I was going to chuck the whole book. I’m glad I didn’t. I did have to put it aside, my animal rescuer’s heart breaking at the thought of drowning dogs, cats, puppies and kittens. I know it was a different time, place and mindset, but still…

But that’s not the story here. The story is mesmerizing. Janet Frame has a writer’s memory for details, describing in almost poetic free-verse the countryside, the people, the family and the trials and tribulations of her young life.

The real story doesn’t begin until Frame enters high school. Her eldest sister, Myrtle, dies in a bizarre swimming accident at the public pool; almost 10 years to the date later, her sister Isobel also drowns while on holiday with her mother. The two losses, combined with her brother Bruddie (George) epilepsy, create horrible stress within her family. Her parents never have enough money. Her mother’s religious faith sustains her, but her father is a bully, sharp and mean.  Janet is so painfully shy she can barely talk to strangers. She pretends to be someone she is not throughout her life until just before her college graduation. Then, faced with the prospect of a life planned for her instead of the life she longs to live, she tries to kill herself by taking a bottle of aspirin. She survives the suicide attempt but almost dies in the insane asylum called Sea Cliff she is sent to, where she is completely misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic.

Here lies the heart of her tale, but she claims she’s told it enough in her fiction, and barely mentions her seven years of incarceration in one of the toughest mental hospitals in New Zealand. She is given shock treatments, treated like an imbecile, all because she is shy! She doesn’t get any kind of treatment whosoever, and on one among the medical professionals in New Zealand ever questions the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It’s not until almost a decade later while living in London that she commits herself voluntarily to a mental hospital in England for final evaluation, and finds out she never had schizophrenia…and all her current problems are due to being incarcerated in an institution!

Janet’s life unfolds as one long string of struggles – to find work she can do despite her painful shyness, to find enough money to survive while she writes. She writes and publishes poetry, short stories and novels. Her poetry I found especially beautiful and compelling. I plan to buy more books by Frame this summer as I loved her use of metaphor, her craftsmanship with language. Her autobiography shows that same beautiful, flowing prose, although sometimes it is difficult to understand if she is using metaphor or trying to convey something else.

Frame eventually wins a grant, escapes a near lobotomy, and flees to England and Spain in search of adventure. She has a fling with a man in Ibizza, gets pregnant, miscarries, and receives a marriage proposal from another gentleman, an Italian living in Spain. She loses her nerve to turn him down and returns to England, where her publisher urges her to take a fancy apartment and pen a bestseller. Once again she finds herself losing her identity as she bows to the wishes of everyone else around her, the good girl acquiescing to the grown ups. Readers will begin to see the theme and variation of her life as she tells her story – she is forever listening to others, subsuming her identity to the whims of “adults” around her, only to struggle to reclaim her sense of self.

Finally, Frame does find that sense of self with the help of an honest psychiatrist in London who seems to be a genuine, caring individual. She returns to New Zealand upon the death of her father, asserts her new found status as ‘sane,’ and fights against the constant portrayal of herself in the New Zealand press as a madwoman.  She even changes her last name to assert her own sense of self.

Finally, at the end of the book, we sense peace.  Frame has claimed her own name, a name she chose for herself. She purchases a small cottage. She stays single. She writes what she wants to write, lives simply, and finally makes enough money to survive. I wanted to applaud on the last page.

Janet Frame was truly a powerful writer. Her autobiography won’t be for everyone, and there are some graphic scenes in it – the first time she has sex, for example, and the aforementioned issues with her pets. If you’re squeamish, you can skip these parts or just accept them as the colorful parts of an amazing woman.

Highly recommended. I purchased my copy from Amazon.

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