Considered one of New Zealand's most important writers, Janet Frame wrote several collections of stories, three volumes of autobiography, and a book of poetry. However, it is as a novelist that she is most admired. Calling her "a most distinguished and disturbing writer," Elizabeth Ward explained in the Washington Post Book World that "all her novels combine or juxtapose satirical social observation with a visionary dimension bordering perhaps on the morbid in its fascination with death and mental illness." In Carole Cooke's estimation, Frame "writes novels like spiders make lace--almost instinctively, without looking back," and, continued Cooke in the Saturday Review, Frame's "books are so unlike what we expect a novel to be that they almost evanesce into their own mysticism." In Contemporary Novelists, W.H. New observed that "she has an uncanny ability to arouse the diverse sensibilities of shifting moods and to entangle in language the wordless truths of her inner eye."
Born in Dunedin as the third of five children, Frame grew up on the coast of South Island in the small town of Oamaru, characterized by Susan Wood in the Washington Post Book World as "physically, emotionally and culturally deprived." Her father worked for the railroad and her mother, who once served as a maid in the home of writer Katherine Mansfield, wrote poems that she sold door-to-door. Poor and painfully shy, Frame escaped the austerity of her childhood in literature and nurtured dreams of becoming a poet. As a young woman, however, she lacked self-confidence as well as a sense of her own identity. Eventually, she completed a teacher training course, but rather than face evaluation by her superiors, she fled from the classroom and never returned. This perceived failure resulted in her attempted suicide; after confiding the incident to a psychology professor, she found herself confined to a hospital's psychiatric ward. Mistakenly diagnosed as a schizophrenic, Frame endured years of hospitalizations and hundreds of shock treatments. She continued to write, though, and published her first book of stories, The Lagoon: Stories, while she was still a patient. When a hospital official happened to read about a literary award that the stories had won--an award about which even Frame was unaware--he released her from the hospital, and she thereby escaped the frontal lobotomy she was scheduled to undergo.
"Things began to change dramatically for Janet Frame after that," wrote Wood. "She was befriended by one of her heroes, the New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson, who gave her a place to live and helped arrange a small stipend so that she could work on her first novel, Owls Do Cry." The novel probes the memory of its mentally disturbed protagonist and reveals the deterioration of a financially and intellectually impoverished New Zealand family. It summoned much critical praise and, according to Robert Pick in the New York Times Book Review, "was hailed as the first important novel to come out of New Zealand." One New Yorker critic called Frame "a very sharp judge of character and a writer with a real narrative gift," and in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, F.H. Bullock proposed that, because of her "compassion" as a narrator "and her poet's temperament," the novel "glows with the inner light of her human awareness."
In a Times Literary Supplement review, Kevin Brown referred to the novel as a "tale of metamorphosis" and a "kind of personal archaeology, painstaking and intensely felt." In light of Frame's own years in psychiatric wards and the attendant "shock treatments that left her past in ashes," said Brown, "it is moving to watch her torchlit wandering in the labyrinth of memory."
Drawing again from personal experience, Frame's second novel, Faces in the Water, records one woman's years in a New Zealand asylum; in the words of Frances Hope in the Spectator, it presents the reader with "a view into the madwoman's view out." A Time contributor found Frame's writing "sensitive, and her evocation of madness unforgettable." Although Patrick Cruttwell wished the novel had delved into why the character suffers, he acknowledged in the London Guardian that it "is a piece of writing whose honesty and power are never in doubt."
Considering it Frame's best book, Joyce Carol Oates explained in the New York Times Book Review that Frame deals with "the fluid boundary between sanity and madness, the watery depths of madness in which the normal 'see' their own faces." Oates remarked that "her novels exist for the purpose of illuminating certain mysteries for us--Miss Frame is obsessed with the mysteries of madness and death--the illumination is attempted through language, not through dramatic tension of one kind or another."
Frame's surrealistic next novel, The Edge of the Alphabet, presents a protagonist who, "in an effort to achieve her own identity ... narrowly observes the lives of half a dozen persons and finds them perpetually baffled, dogged by loneliness and a sense of ineffectuality, and all variously aware that communication between the living is impossible," according to a contributor to the New York Herald Tribune Book Review.
According to William Peden in the Saturday Review, all the characters are "adrift in a limbo between illusion and reality which [the protagonist] calls 'the edge of the alphabet,' where 'words crumble' and communication is useless." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer regarded the narrative as "beautifully economical and told in a mixture of realism and fantasy, through interior monologue, snatches of dialogue, and flights of brilliant description."
Scented Gardens for the Blind presents, through interior monologue, three characters--a New Zealand genealogist working in England, his wife, and his daughter, who becomes mute upon leaving school. Calling it "the most remarkable novel that I have read in many years," Stanley Edgar Hyman proposed in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time: "If it is not a work of genius ... it is surely a brilliant and overwhelming tour de force."
The novel was judged less successful by other critics. In the New York Times Book Review, for example, Peter Buitenhuis suggested that if "Frame intended this novel as a study in isolation and madness she has failed ... for there are clearly passages that have so strong a flavor of autobiography that she seems to have discharged the contents of her notebooks straight on to her pages." Nonetheless, a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement believed that "any failure in communication on the part of the book as a whole, however, is redeemed by the beauty of the lyric style," adding that "there is no mistaking the power of Miss Frame's imagination and the anguish of her concern for suffering and beauty."
In A State of Siege, the unmarried protagonist tries to start a new life by leaving her native New Zealand for an isolated island after years of teaching art and nursing her ailing mother, but while on the island she endures a night of terror and dies. Finding it "an extraordinary novel," H.T. Anderson commented in Best Sellers that it "is worth the experience just for the richness and color of the prose alone."
In the New York Times Book Review, Millicent Bell called the novel "a study of the isolated and stagnant spirit struggling unsuccessfully for definition and expression," and related it to Frame's "earlier explorations of lives cut off from outer relationship." Although Bell thought that "Frame sets herself no easy task in seeking out interest in the drab stuff of a spinster's dreams and gropings," she added that "Frame's gifts are unquestionably poetic--the description of personal mood and of nature. These, and a verbal wit are at her command." The New Zealand Film Commission assisted in adapting the book into a successful Golden Globe Award-winning film.
In Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, published as The Rainbirds in England, Frame writes about an English immigrant to New Zealand who dies in an automobile accident only to return to life. "Life, however, rejects his resurrection," wrote a Time reviewer. "He is fired from his job ... branded an anathema by society ... resented by his family for the inconvenience of his miracle." New called it Frame's "gentlest, most comic (however hauntingly, macabrely, relentlessly discommoding) book," and according to J.A. May in the Christian Science Monitor, the novel "has all the inevitability and awfulness of a Greek tragedy." For some critics, such as Oates, though, the novel does not quite achieve its potential.
"One simply does not believe," said Oates in her New York Times Book Review piece, remarking that "this is a pity, for much of the novel is finely written, in a peculiar limpid style that seems a cross between Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett."
Intensive Care is the chronicle of two families living in Waipori, New Zealand, and includes several tragic elements and a futuristic era in which social problems are met by a computer that marks people for death. A critic for Time wrote that Intensive Care continues Frame's preoccupation with history as "a hereditary malignancy that engulfs the present and dooms the future to madness, loneliness and death."
While L.J. Davis, in Washington Post Book World, compared the novel to "spending an evening in the company of a compulsively talkative, brilliant, neurotic woman obsessed with blood, disease, death, and the suffering of lonely people whose lives have gone all wrong," Arthur Edelstein found it "a tangle of prose, verse, ballad, imaginary letters, and an enormous leap in the end to something like lyric allegory." Continuing in the Southern Review, Edelstein described it as "bewildering yet powerful, an experience in which it cannot be determined how many layers of dream one has descended into, in which the characters dreaming seem themselves to be dreamed, as though all were the fevered conjurings of a patient in one of the novel's 'Recovery Units.'"
With the bizarrely plotted Daughter Buffalo, Frame concentrates again on death and insanity. According to Michael Rogers in Library Journal, the novel is "a strange, visionary work, as much a poem as a novel, with images of insanity, mutation, and death, and perceptions of how language changes reality."
The book alternately tells the stories of its two protagonists; and in the words of Barbara Harte in Best Sellers, Frame's technique "is virtually a novel within a novel, or a dual novel, and within this perilous framework, anathema to the insensitive amateur." Josephine Hendin, who labeled it "a poem to the union of the living dead," continued in the New York Times Book Review: "Pathetic and ugly, sad and destructive, it has the grim power of life drawn up as a suicide pact. ... But she writes with a beauty that confers a morbid grandeur, that makes poetry of the particular, the private, the enclosed."
"Language, in everyday use and in fiction, and its relation to experience--of self and others, nature and the denaturing effects of modern life--is the theme of The Carpathians," wrote Jayne Pilling in the Times Literary Supplement. Described by Nancy Wartik in the New York Times Book Review as a "small masterpiece of literary craftsmanship, the work of an original thinker with a poet's ear for the sound and cadence of language," the story centers on a rich American whose author wife, in an attempt to end a long writing block, travels to exotic places "in search of contact with other people's experience," remarked Pilling.
During a stay in New Zealand, a new galaxy is discovered that is simultaneously close and far away. Observing a frequent and "curious, combustible mix of modes at work" in Frame's novels, Pilling observed that in The Carpathians, the "possibilities are so rich that Frame needs several different narratives, Chinese box-style, to contain them." Moreover, Frame's autobiographical works illumine her fictional ones, said Pilling: "Frame has already given us the opportunity to see how a creative imagination works with felt and observed experience, since her autobiographical works can be read alongside her fiction, and it is richly rewarding to do so."
"Her fictional and autobiographical writings are so closely interrelated that to read one work creates an appetite for the others; her various treatments of any subject enhance, rather than diminish, each other," noted Fleur Adcock in the Times Literary Supplement. "Everything she presents is illuminated and thrown into sharp focus by the limpid clarity of a highly individual vision; she can be detached and passionate at the same time." Frame's To the Is-Land: An Autobiography recalls her early childhood and is described by Helen Bevington in the New York Times Book Review as "a wistful tale, honestly and believably told, of the puzzling encounters of childhood, the recognitions, the gain and the loss."
The book's title originated from what Ward said was Frame's "mispronunciation of the word 'island,' but eventually elevated into a kind of ideal state, neither the 'Was-Land' nor the Future, but the everlasting literal-minded here and now of the young." Ward indicated that while Owls Do Cry contains the same information as To the Is-Land, the latter is "much simpler and more lighthearted." Bevington suggested that "if one is to know Janet Frame better, hear the rest of it, one must consent to follow her on her journey to as many Is-Lands as there are."
An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography continues Frame's personal story through her travels abroad, made possible by a government grant. According to Bevington in the New York Times Book Review, it "gives further evidence she has an arresting story to tell."
Describing it as "fascinating, moving, and sometimes blackly humorous," Susan Wood wrote in the Washington Post Book World that the book details Frame's misdiagnosis as schizophrenic and her long ordeal in and out of mental hospitals. "Simply living on her own, proving to herself that she was capable of existing in the world, seems to have been just what Frame and her writing needed. ... What she has done," observed Wood, "is quite amazing and that she has done it with a sense of humor and without self-pity is more amazing still."
The Envoy from Mirror City: An Autobiography, which continues the autobiographical trilogy, was regarded as "a memoir of travel and imagination" by Carol Sternhell in the New York Times Book Review. It begins with Frame's arrival in London at the age of thirty-two and ends eight years later with her journey home to New Zealand. Ward suggested in the Washington Post Book World that while "some readers will value the book for ... literary insights; others will appreciate more easily Janet Frame's comic spirit, her courage and honesty. For all these things, the entire trilogy is a work to treasure." Sternhell suggested that the book is "less compelling than the earlier volumes" but concluded that "it's impossible not to be moved by this extraordinary portrait of a woman for whom art is life, a life well worth living."
Writing a biography about Frame, an intensely private and shy individual with a fear of microphones and cameras, is no easy task. Nonetheless, award-winning writer Michael King accomplished such a feat with the publication of Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. At Frame's request, King's book contains no criticism of her writings but is strictly a biography. King discussed Frame's motivation for publishing her autobiography in an interview for Meanjin: "While Janet had, almost reluctantly, written an autobiography that covered half her life, she had done so only to have what she referred to as 'my say.' And she was driven to it by what she felt was the impertinent and wildly inaccurate version of parts of her life that others had written and published. She wanted to set the record 'straight'; and in particular she wanted to dispel the notion that she was a genius whose art arose from a disordered mind." King added about Frame's contributions to Wrestling with the Angel: "It is very much to her credit that she not only consented to relive with me some of the most painful episodes in her life but also recognised my right, as a fellow professional, to make the ultimate decisions about treatment and content." While a reviewer for Publishers Weekly claimed that King's biography can be "anticlimactic" and is "no replacement for Frame's autobiography," Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called the biography "a meticulously researched and quietly lucid account."
Posthumously published, The Goose Bath: Poems was released in 2006. The collection, which won the 2007 Montana Book Award for poetry, includes over 120 poems split into seven distinct sections meant to imitate the passing time of one's life.
Simone Oettli, reviewing the book in World Literature Today, commented that "Frame's chosen editors have put together a reader-friendly volume, generously set out and aesthetically pleasing, each writing a short section to explain his or her role and working perspective. The aim to please the reader was certainly achieved."
In 2007 Frame's novel Towards Another Summer was published. The novel features New Zealander novelist Grace Cleave, who accepts an invitation to travel to England. Once there, however, she begins to buckle under the weight of her literary success.
Booklist contributor Seaman lauded that "this exquisite portrait of a mind under pressure will revitalize appreciation for a poetic master stylist." Joy Humphrey, writing in Library Journal, said that "this work holds up perfectly, speaking to anyone who has ever felt isolated and different." David Gates, writing in the New York Times Book Review, opined that "Towards Another Summer wouldn't pass John Gardner's sniff test for 'moral fiction': for Grace, no one else's existence is important except to the extent that it makes her miserable. But it might pass that of Donald Barthelme, who once said that 'my every sentence trembles with morality, in that each attempts to engage the problematic.' Grace's very denial of her own humanity suggests a longing for human connection--as does her compulsion to get home and tell her story. They also serve who only sit and type."
In 2009 the selected short story collection Prizes was released posthumously. The account includes stories from four of her previous collections as well as five stories not previously published.
Sarah Conrad Weisman, writing in Library Journal, "highly recommended" the account, suggesting that "this collection may be particularly appealing to writers who have struggled professionally." Booklist contributor Seaman observed: "Laced with startling observations and leaps of the imagination, Frame's gracefully excoriating stories are iridescently alive."
Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories was published posthumously in 2013. The collection compiles twenty-eight stories that go back to Frame's very first publication, the short story "University Entrance." A little more than half of the stories, however, are previously unpublished and cover the vast range of experience Frame gained as she evolved into an internationally renowned author.
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Alison McCulloch reasoned: "Posthumous collections can have the whiff of leftovers about them, and there are a few stories here that feel like extras. 'The People of the Summer Valley' is charming, but more like a verbal doodle than a story, while 'The Wind Brother' and 'The Friday Night World,' both written for children and published in New Zealand's long-running School Journal, aren't a good fit. Of course, on that latter point, an outsider might well disagree." Reviewing the collection in the Boston Globe, Jane Ciabattari declared: "Frame's is an acute vision, attuned to the full spectrum of human experience. The kingdom of her spacious imagination is fully displayed in this collection. And it arrives with a characteristic ironic twist."
The novel In the Memorial Room was also published posthumously, at the request of the author, in 2013. The novel satirizes the devotion to famous authors. In this novel, Frame creates the poet MargaretRose Hurndell--based on the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield--and centers the story on historical fiction writer Harry Gill and his observations of Hurndell's fan base. Gill serves as a Watercress-Armstrong fellow and is determined to break out of his literary mold and write a humorous novel while on his fellowship set up in Hurndell's name while in Menton, France.
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Scott Bradfield remarked that the novel "is filled with terrifyingly beautiful reflections on how writing books (and even reading them) can feel like digging your own grave. It also serves as a sly warning to those of us who obsessively cherish the works of dead writers--even writers as good as Janet Frame. Watch out! The death you memorialize may well be your own." Reviewing the novel in the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Pierce claimed that the novel "triumphs as a pungent analysis of the manufacture of fame, a satire of the discontented, a poignant account of the loneliness of every writer, and of Harry Gill in particular." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called the novel "brilliant," adding that "Frame's sentences are marvels, winding like narrow alleys through hill towns: They open spectacular vistas." Reviewing the novel in Library Journal, Faye Chadwell insisted that In the Memorial Room "is a terrific introduction to an original writer who deserves her own serious league of fans."
From: "Janet Frame." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2014.