Friday, 6 February 2009

Janet Frame took words seriously and this was a pleasure for her. But it was also a cause of pain. And because she lived in a country where conformity was of paramount importance, people were always telling her what to do. As she took their words like sticks or stones, like solid objects that could bounce or smash through a person's frail composure, she was always a 'good girl'.

In her The Complete Autobiography (1990), starting in childhood with To the Is-Land (1982), Frame observes herself becoming estranged from her true self, and because she's a brilliant writer - metaphors and imagery from nature are foremost but she also uses a clear logic based on deep thought - we are swept along with her.

An Angel at My Table (1984) chronicles her later childhood, growing up. Then The Envoy from Mirror City (1985) takes us to the present where Frame, a famous writer living once more in her native land, escapes from the past and reenters the tunnel of forgiveness to revisit old ghosts and the places where they used to meet.

"We both knew that in a conformist society there are a surprising number of 'deciders' upon the lives and fate of others," Frame writes. "I was again surrounded by people who were planning my future." She wants to "escape from a country where ... a difference which was only myself ... had been looked on as evidence of abnormality".

Escape she does. She reclaims part of the ten years spent in mental institutions by gathering to herself, travelling (for a total of seven years) in Ibiza, a lover. She miscarries, moves to Andorra and walks in the snow. Back in London she goes back to the hospital. But this time it's of her own choosing.

Her father, a bully. Her mother, a compliant slave. Her two sisters dead by drowning (bad hearts). Her brother, an epileptic. It is visible, the cause of her afflication, in the moral overtone given to her brother Bruddie's illness by the pest of a father. "He can overcome it if he wants."

In the mental asylum in New Zealand she's whipped into shape, given electric shock therapy (each time a death) and isolated by an inhuman regime of abuse and neglect. She escapes having a life-altering brain operation - to make her 'normal' - by the discovery that a book that had been published containing her short stories had won a prestigious local literary prize.

London is not only a place of refuge (seven years!) but an essential element of her becoming a woman. Likewise Ibiza. But she returns to New Zealand to write, because being too far away from the places she inhabited in youth is detrimental, she feels, to her craft. In London she manifestly 'becomes' a writer.

The book is striking, the imagery and the threads - long sentences piling quoted bits on top of one another until they threaten to burst - of narrative, enthralling. We feel that she deserved more than New Zealand which, callow, shamefaced, reclaimed her as a writer who had 'made good' overseas. A more weighty accolade is not available and the country submits to accepting her 'as she is'.

It's a relief. The words that had wounded her as a girl become malleable, useable. She puts them down on the page. We read them. Applause.

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