THIS FIRST VOLUME of autobiography by the noted New Zealand novelist, Janet Frame, is an unpretentious yet curiously haunting book that causes one, in Frame's own words, "to shiver with the sense of yesterday," whether or not one shares her New Zealand background. Yet it is precisely the freshness with which she writes of a particular place and childhood which accomplishes this, rather than the genuinely profound concerns with time and death and language which underlie the book.
Janet Frame was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1924, the daugther of an engine-driver, third in a family of five children. Most of her childhood, however, was spent in the coastal South Island town of Oamaru, which becomes the main setting of this memoir. In many ways, no more prosaic starting-place could be imagined. "We were to be real town-dwellers with electric lights and a pull-the-chain lavatory instead of a dumpy hole," Frame writes of the family's arrival in Oamaru when she was about seven years old. "We were to have town milk, delivered each morning, and Dad was to ride a bicycle to work." Depression years loomed and the family struggled throughout Frame's childhood and adolescence on the fringes of poverty. The book recreates this period with marvelous vividness, acuity and humor, despite the shafts of horror which now and then disturb its generally even surface: her brother's misunderstood epilepsy, her sister's drowning at the age of 15, the skeletons of kittens rising in the creek, a distant war. Its preeminent qualities remain the childlike ones of innocence and exuberance as, "in spite of everything, our life continued." School, poetry, cows, relatives, "the wireless," games and family holidays are recalled with all the child's unreflecting egocentricity. And with the same apparent artlessness, Janet Frame brings her characters to startling comic life. The portrayal of her parents is especially affecting, given her knack of skewering people on their own habits of speech, and rendering them somehow hilarious, pathetic and authoritative all at once, although the book is also shot through with affection from first to last. It is basically "a selection of views of the Is-Land," Janet Frame's childish place of private habitation, named first for her 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.
Yet for all the delightful ordinariness and realism of the narrative, there is also a more serious purpose to the book. Oamaru was not just "home" but the young Janet's "Kingdom by the sea," and is thus transformed here by the powers of memory and imagination into a special place, the seeding-bed of a truly original writer. "It is strange to think of my life being lived as I then lived my 'real' life, so much within and influenced by English and French literature, with my daily adventures a discovery of a paragraph or a poem and my own attempts to write. It was not an escape in the sense of a removal from the unhappiness I felt over the sickness at home or from my own feeling of nowhereness in not having ordinary clothes to wear . . . ; there was no removal of myself and my life to another world; here was simply the other world's arrival into my world, the literature streaming through it like an array of beautiful ribbons through the branches of a green, growing tree, touching the leaves with unexpected light that was unlike the expected deserved habitual light of the sun and the seasons."
For Janet Frame is today a most distinguished and disturbing writer, author of 10 novels, including the widely- praised Faces in the Water, State of Siege and Living in the Maniototo, two collections of stories and one volume of poetry. 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. The streak of morbidity aside, this combination recalls nothing so much as the work of Australia's Patrick White, as it also indicates the depth of her seriousness as a writer. As with White, it is the tortured and visionary side of Frame which is the source of her continuing experimentation with language. To devotees of her writing, To the Is-Land may prove most interesting in its revelation of the origins of these rather dark preoccupations and of her fascination with words. But it is in itself a much simpler and more lighthearted enterprise. It is worth noting that Frame's first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), is composed of almost identical material, but its stress on madness and death puts it a world apart in feeling from To the Is-Land. The common reader might indeed conclude that the subordination in this memoir of bloody torture and linguistic experiment to the sunny realism of the child's-eye view constitutes its greatest strength.
Either way, one looks forward with pleasure to a second volume.