Janet Frame’s moving, skillfully told autobiography reflects both her abilities as a writer and the talent for introspection that her often difficult life has taught her. Far from being merely a factual retelling of the events of her life, the book is instead an illuminating look at the forces that shaped her particular experience of the world and a thoughtful study of how that experience has affected her work as a writer.
In the book’s first volume, To the Is-Land, Frame creates a vivid portrait of her early family life. Her mother, Lottie, emerges as a cheerful, loving woman who instills in her children her own love of poetry and literature. The responsibilities of caring for a husband and five children prevent her from pursuing her early attempts at writing poetry for a local newspaper, but Frame recalls her mother’s ability to invest even commonplace objects with a sense of wonder that captivated her children. Frame’s father, George, although more reserved than his wife, seems at first an amiable and engaging man, singing for his family and playing the bagpipes. When financial worries and his son’s illness arise, however, George Frame gradually grows bitter and distant, and his daughter conveys the family’s growing alienation in sharply remembered detail.
Frame also succeeds in re-creating her early sense of the world from a child’s point of view: the songs and sights and stories that caught her young imagination, the fear and excitement of moving to a new home, her belief that the song “God Save Our Gracious Tin” (as she then pronounced it) referred to her only toy, a silver kerosene tin. The unhappiness of her first years at school—where she was an outsider, the child of a poor family, often unwashed and wearing the same dress for days at a time—is captured with painful accuracy, as is her later blossoming as a scholar and her grateful embrace of the realm of literature and imagination as a refuge from the harshness of her...
(The entire section is 812 words.)