Janet Frame Frame, Janet (Vol. 96) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Janet Frame 1924–

New Zealand novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Frame's works through 1992. For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 22, and 66.

Frame is one of New Zealand's most well-known contemporary fiction writers and has published numerous novels, stories, and poems, many of which are set in her native country. Much of her fiction is marked by a concern with death, language, poverty, and madness—conditions with which she became familiar while growing up during the Depression, and later when she spent several years in a mental institution after being diagnosed erroneously as a schizophrenic. Frame often explores misconceptions about insanity by juxtaposing madness and fantasy with reality. She also frequently employs figurative language in an effort to depict the ways in which people communicate—or fail to communicate. W. H. New explained that "for the patient reader of her fiction, the … reward derives from the aesthetic demands the author makes; to read Frame's stories is not merely to be invited to meet a set of characters and a range of strange events, but also to be drawn into framed narratives where the structures of the prose are themselves the means and the metaphors of perceptual understanding."

Biographical Information

Frame began writing as a child in an effort to liberate herself from what she termed "a background of poverty, drunkenness, attempted murder, and near-madness." During the Depression, her large family scraped out a living in a rural area of New Zealand and suffered several tragedies: two of her sisters drowned in separate incidents, and her younger brother suffered many seizures from epilepsy. Though she wanted to be a writer, Frame studied teaching in college but soon suffered a nervous breakdown that landed her in a psychiatric hospital and effectively ended her teaching career. She was forced to submit to hundreds of sessions of electroshock therapy, but despite this she continued to write and published her first book of short stories, The Lagoon (1951), while still a patient. Reflecting her abiding concerns for destructive familial relationships and the consequences of miscommunication between individuals and societies, Frame's writing addresses the social inequities of people who are perceived as being psychologically, physically, or intellectually inferior by those possessing political power.

Major Works

Frame's early novels are generally regarded as disturbing and powerful. These include Owls Do Cry (1957), which concerns a woman struggling to survive in a psychiatric hospital; Intensive Care (1970), a story about the creation of legislation that would rid the world of misfits; and Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963), an allegorical tale about the possible atomic destruction of Britain. Robert Osterman commented on Frame's early work: "No one can call Janet Frame an easy novelist to come to terms with. Her imagination is most comfortable with subjects like madness, personal dislocations in time and place, and the use of dreams and illusions to keep life at bay. And deep in all her fiction lies a passionate concern for language and the betrayals of human purpose it can be made to serve." Much of Frame's fiction contains autobiographical elements, but it was not until the publication of her three-volume autobiography in the 1980s that Frame revealed the details of her family life and the eight years she spent in and out of mental hospitals as a young woman. To the Is-Land (1982) traces Frame's poverty-stricken childhood in New Zealand and investigates some of the incidents that later led to a series of nervous breakdowns. In the second installment, An Angel at My Table (1984), Frame recounts her experiences as a student at a teacher's training college and the events that caused her to flee from an assignment when an inspector entered her class to observe her lesson. After this incident Frame attempted suicide for the first time, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and sent to a mental hospital where "the squalor and inhumanity were almost indescribable." The narrative of The Envoy from the Mirror City (1985) begins after Frame was released from psychiatric care. Deciding to move to England to broaden her experience and to develop her talents as a writer, Frame visits a respected mental facility in London and discovers that the diagnosis of schizophrenia which had ruled her life for so many years was incorrect. Although unnerved by the implications of this discovery, Frame continues to rely upon the rejuvenating powers of writing to which she had always been drawn: "It is a little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life." In 1989 New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion brought Frame's story to the cinema in the award-winning film An Angel at My Table, which dramatizes many of the events in the three volumes of Frame's autobiography. Frame has continued to garner critical acclaim with her subsequent novels, most notably The Carpathians (1988), which won Frame a Commonwealth Literary Prize. The Carpathians takes place in the fictional town of Puamahara, New Zealand, where a local legend purports that a young Maori woman gained unusual knowledge of human history after tasting the fruit of an unknown tree. Mattina Breton, a wealthy New Yorker, travels to New Zealand to learn the source of the folktale from Puamahara's eccentric residents and becomes fascinated by reports of the Gravity Star, an astral phenomenon that—if real—would challenge common perceptions of time and space and destroy the world.

Critical Reception

Several critics, including Owen Leeming, have commented on how difficult Frame's novels can be to interpret. Narrators cannot be assumed to be truthful, and events cannot necessarily be taken as fact. Many critics have praised the lyrical, complex language and word games Frame employs in her fiction; the names of her characters are frequently symbolic, like Thera Pattern in The Edge of the Alphabet (1962), Vera Glace in Scented Gardens for the Blind, and Malfred Signal in A State of Siege (1966), but other critics have dismissed these tactics as a distraction from her thematic intentions. In addition, some critics have faulted The Carpathians for complex and interrelated elements of reality and fantasy, but have lauded her exploration of the relationships between language, conformity, and the mysteries of time and space. Jayne Pilling has commented: "As so often in Frame's novels, there's a curious, combustible mix of modes at work here. An apparently straightforward narrative is exploded from within by a mother-load of metaphor…. Yet its possibilities are so rich that Frame needs several different narratives, Chinese-box style, to contain them." Thomas Crawford has called her "our most subjective writer," but her depictions of 1950s mental hospitals are considered by most to be a valuable insight into a system marked by abuse of power and neglect of the individual. One criticism of Frame's portrayal of social inequities is that she is quick to point out the shortcomings of the bourgeoisie, but she never proposes a solution; as Muriel Haynes has explained it, Frame is an "obsessed mourner" who is "steeped in nostalgia and, in her grief for man's betrayal of his sustaining myths, tends to slight present social and cultural complexities." Jeanne Delbare-Garant, in an essay regarding Frame's early novels, has praised the author's technical skill, stating that "Frame herself is, like Orpheus, the keeper of the lighthouse and the guardian of language, the torchbearer standing in the radiance of the perfect circle, the authentic Dasein through which being reveals itself and, like the wind in a tree, sends its message to the rest of mankind."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lagoon (short stories) 1951
Owls Do Cry (novel) 1957
Faces in the Winter (novel) 1961
The Edge of the Alphabet (novel) 1962
The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches (short stories) 1963
Scented Gardens for the Blind (novel) 1963
Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (short stories) 1963
The Adaptable Man (novel) 1965
A State of Siege (novel) 1966
The Pocket Mirror (poetry) 1967
The Rainbirds [published in the United States as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room] (novel) 1968
Intensive Care (novel) 1970
Daughter Buffalo (novel) 1972
Living in the Maniototo (novel) 1979
To the Is-Land (autobiography) 1982
An Angel at My Table (autobiography) 1984
You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (short stories) 1984
The Envoy from the Mirror City (autobiography) 1985
The Carpathians (novel) 1988

Aileen Pippett (review date 9 September 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Faces in the Water, in Saturday Review, September 9, 1961, p. 23.

[Pippett is a British editor, biographer, and critic. In the following review, she finds that Frame expresses "an underlying truth about our common humanity" in Faces in the Water.]

A prefatory note states that this book, [Janet Frame's Faces in the Water,] although in documentary form, is a work of fiction. This claim to be true in outline and essence is amply justified. As a report on mental hospitals in New Zealand it checks with accounts from many countries about similar conditions of overcrowding and shortage of adequately trained staffs. As a novel it carries...

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Robert Pick (review date 8 October 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ordeal at Cliffhaven," in The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1961, p. 36.

[Pick is an Austrian-born novelist, editor, and translator. In the following review, he discusses the literary device of allegory as it pertains to Frame's Faces in the Water.]

When Miss Frame's first book, Owls Do Cry, appeared a year ago, it was hailed as the first important novel to come out of New Zealand. Her new novel [Faces in the Water] is an equally remarkable achievement. Presented as the memoir of a cured mental patient, its blend of on-the-spot observation and hindsight, far from weakening the immediacy of the writing, strengthens its power. A disturbing...

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Thomas Crawford (review date March 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Edge of the Alphabet, in Landfall, Vol. 17, No. 1, March, 1963, pp. 192-95.

[Crawford is a Scottish educator, writer, and critic. In the mixed review below, he praises Frame's The Edge of the Alphabet for its rhetoric and cadence, stating that Frame writes in a language "so eloquent that few of her contemporaries can equal it."]

It is hard for the novelist of the lost childhood, the madhouse or the concentration camp to write about the so-called 'real' contemporary world. Janet Frame tries to do it in [The Edge of the Alphabet]; the result is part failure, part success.

Her failure is the inevitable...

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Wilfrid Sheed (review date 8 August 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "When the Spell Works It's Binding," in The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1965, p. 4.

[Sheed is a British novelist, editor, columnist, and critic. In the following review, he praises Frame's The Adaptable Man, considering the novel "comic, intense, [and] stylish."]

The New Zealand authoress Janet Frame is a "witch-novelist" who stirs her plots under a full moon and has various magic powers, including a number-one witch's curse. Her prose style is a series of charms and incantations, passwords repeated in a baleful voice, which hex up the whole landscape, turning the vegetables into people and the people back into vegetables, or worse: into rock...

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H. T. Anderson (review date 15 July 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A State of Siege, in Best Sellers, Vol. 26, No. 8, July 15, 1966, pp. 149-50.

[In the review below, Anderson praises Frame's A State of Siege, considering it "a truly singular reading experience."]

The truly singular reading experience does not present itself very frequently in modern fiction. Janet Frame's latest novel, A State of Siege, affords just such a rare privilege. The book allows the reader a remarkably intimate intrusion into the subtly tragic life of Malfred Signal, retired art teacher whose entire being had been directed toward two things: teaching young girls how to draw and nursing a dying mother who "stayed so...

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Muriel Haynes (review date 19 April 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nature as Status," in Saturday Review, April 19, 1969, pp. 41-2.

[In the review below, Haynes offers a mixed assessment of Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, finding in it a "virtuosity" that eventually "wears thin."]

The New Zealand Novelist Janet Frame is an obsessed mourner at the grave of the ancient mysteries that once linked the individual and his group in a tradition of man's oneness with the universe. [Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room] seems intended as a parable of our grievous separation from the mythic past. Yet its hold on the form is shaky; I find it more satisfying when read as an inquiry—by a compulsively directed poetic...

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Patrick Evans (review date June 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Rainbirds, in Landfall, Vol. 23, No. 2, June, 1969, pp. 189-94.

[In the review below, Evans finds that while The Rainbirds is occasionally threatened by "artistically gratuitous passages of authorial comment," it is exemplary of Frame's "immense verbal talent."]

The newest inhabitant of Janet Frame's world is thirty-year-old Godfrey Rainbird, an English immigrant who has become a Dunedin clerk, and who has a wife, a house with a view, and two children. In The Rainbirds, Godfrey experiences death and resurrection in suburbia. He is taken lifeless to the morgue after being knocked down one night on the way home from a meeting....

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Julian Moynahan (review date 3 May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Sort of Anzac Peter Ibbetsen and Family," in The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1970, p. 4.

[Moynahan is an American educator, novelist, essayist, and critic. In the review of Intensive Care below, he criticizes Frame for not answering the many questions she raises in the novel.]

Janet Frame is a New Zealand novelist and poet who is not well known in this country and whose eighth novel, Intensive Care, is unlikely to win her many new converts among the novel-reading public. The book is sprawling and invertebrate, overwritten at times in a vein of capricious prose-poetry and actual poetry, indifferent to problems of construction and...

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Edward P. J. Corbett (review date 23 May 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Intensive Care, in America, Vol. 122, No. 20, May 23, 1970, pp. 565-66.

[Corbett is an American educator, writer, and critic. In the review below, he approaches Frame's fiction ambivalently, stating that Intensive Care is "like no other novel I have ever read."]

[Intensive Care] is a difficult book to describe or evaluate. It is like no other novel I have ever read; and having read this one, I am still uncertain whether I will ever be disposed to read any of Janet Frame's previously published seven novels.

Yet the quotes on the dust jacket are unstinting in their praise of the earlier novels—John Barkham on...

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Jeanne Delbaere-Garant (essay date April 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Daphne's Metamorphoses in Janet Frame's Early Novels," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, April, 1975, pp. 23-37.

[In the essay below, Delbaere-Garant traces similarities between Daphne, the protagonist of Owls Do Cry, and the characters in Frame's novels Faces in the Water, The Edge of the Alphabet, and Scented Gardens for the Blind.]

Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame's first novel, begins with a message in italics signed "Daphne from the deadroom." Other such mysterious and poetical messages by the same hand are scattered throughout the story which introduces us to Daphne as a child and tells us about the...

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Carole Ferrier (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Rejection: Janet Frame's Recent Work," in South Pacific Images, edited by Chris Tiffin, South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 1978, pp. 196-203.

[Ferrier is an educator and editor. In the following essay, she discusses thematic shifts in Frame's fiction from her earlier to her later works.]

Through the carefully-woven patterns of imagery and symbolism which distinguish Janet Frame's novels runs a dominant theme—that of oppositions. These range from the antinomies of treasure and rubbish around which Owls Do Cry is organised, to the juxtaposition of 'this' and 'that' world, discussed by Frame in a...

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P. D. Evans (essay date Spring 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Farthest from the Heart': The Autobiographical Parables of Janet Frame," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Evans traces the parallels between themes, techniques, and metaphors in Frame's early stories to those in her later works.]

No one approaches Janet Frame's writing for an evening of light entertainment. The atmosphere of her work is almost unrelievedly dark; its texture thick with imagery and allusion; its plots full of deceits engineered to trick the reader; its significance half-stated and often obscure, as if the process of writing has not fully released the impulses which have brought it...

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Helen Bevington (review date 21 November 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Girl from New Zealand," in The New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1992, pp. 14, 34.

[Bevington is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following review of To the Island, she notes that Frame's book, while part of a trilogy, can stand alone as an autobiographical work.]

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A. L. McLeod (review date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of To the Is-Land: An Autobiography, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, p. 352.

[McLeod is an Australian-born educator, poet, and critic. In the following review, he discusses Frame's autobiographical style in To the Is-Land, considering it unsatisfactory and lacking in discretion.]

Herbert Spencer observed that the autobiographer "is obliged to omit from his narrative the commonplace of daily life," while Somerset Maugham noted that the writer of an autobiography often places too great an emphasis on matters that are more common than supposed. Certainly Janet Frame, in this first volume of her autobiography [To...

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W. H. New (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Frame Story World of Janet Frame," in Essays on Canadian Writing, Vol. 29, Spring, 1984, pp. 175-191.

[New is a Canadian educator, essayist, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the theoretical structure and narrative framing devices commonly used by Frame in her writing.]

Since 1951, when her first work, The Lagoon, appeared, Janet Frame has gathered a faithful international readership. At first noticed only in her native New Zealand, where as a short story writer she remained in Katherine Mansfield's shadow, she began to publish in the United States and England (with George Braziller and W.H. Allen) in the early 1960s. In 1960...

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A. L. McLeod (review date Summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "New Zealand," in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 488-89.

[In the review of An Angel at My Table below, McLeod criticizes the kind of autobiographical information Frame includes in her work.]

Two years ago Janet Frame brought out the first volume, To the Is-Land, of her projected three-volume autobiography: that installment concluded with her departure from home for university and city life; the second one, An Angel at My Table, ends with her departure from New Zealand for England and continental life, thus chronicling almost fifteen years of social, psychological, and literary struggle in which she was judged...

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Patrick Evans (essay date September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Janet Frame and the Art of Life," in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 3, September, 1985, pp. 375-83.

[In the following essay, Evans discusses Frame's career as it is explored in the first three volumes of her autobiography, To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City.]

With the publication at sixty of the first three volumes of her autobiography (To the Is-land, 1983; An Angel at My Table, 1984; The Envoy from Mirror City, 1985), Janet Frame gives the impression of rounding out her long career as a writer. Her first published story appeared just after the Second World War; since then there have been five volumes of...

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Gina Mercer (essay date September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exploring 'The Secret Caves of Language': Janet Frame's Poetry," in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 3, September, 1985, pp. 384-90.

[In the following essay, Mercer examines Frame's poetry in The Pocket Mirror as well as the more poetic passages of her novels, finding both to be "innovative and engrossing."]

When she was sixteen, Janet Frame wrote in her diary, 'Dear Mr Ardenue, they think I'm going to be a schoolteacher, but I'm going to be a poet'. She has become a poet, but she is still beset by the problem of a 'they' who think she is, or ought to be, something else.

Janet Frame is repeatedly referred to as a 'novelist'. This, despite...

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Carol Sternhell (review date 6 October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Imagination's True Country," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1985, p. 30

[In the review below, Sternhell compares the third volume of Frame's autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City, to the previous volumes, To the Is-Land and An Angel at My Table.]

Even as a small child, Janet Frame believed that words were magic. She collected bright moments of language as other children might gather shiny marbles or seashells, protective totems against the crowded, puzzling world of home and school. She was not completely surprised, years later, when literature quite literally saved her—when a scheduled lobotomy was canceled at the...

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Robert Ross (essay date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Linguistic Transformation and Reflection in Janet Frame's Living in the Maniototo," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 320-26.

[In the essay below, Ross analyzes Frame's use of language in Living in the Maniototo, concluding that Frame is able to transcend conventional narrative structures through the manipulation of language.]

Janet Frame has travelled often to the "Is-Land," the "Table" where the angel hovers, to "Mirror City," then returned to tell the truth allotted her. But she owns only language to transform this "view over all time and space" into a coherent vision that reflects the "treasures" she...

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Ruth Brown (essay date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Owls Do Cry: Portrait of New Zealand," in Landfall, Vol. 44, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 350-58.

[In the following essay, Brown comments on the way in which Frame analyzes New Zealand society in her novel Owls Do Cry.]

Janet Frame emerged in 1954 after eight years in hospital to join a literary academy which had strong views about society's shortcomings. New Zealand was held to be narrow, bourgeois, puritanical, philistine, boring and materialist. Two influential articles in Landfall: Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers' (1952) and Chapman's 'Fiction and the Social Pattern' (1953) elaborated a perception of New Zealand which by that time had transcended...

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Elizabeth Alley (interview date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'An Honest Record': An Interview with Janet Frame," in Landfall, Vol. 45, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 154-68.

[In the interview with Alley below, Frame discusses her thoughts on the genres of autobiography and fiction as well as on the act of writing.]

What follows is made out of two separate interviews recorded for Radio New Zealand by Elizabeth Alley and broadcast on the Concert Programme. The first was recorded at Wanganui in April 1983. The second was recorded in 1988 when Elizabeth Alley visited Janet Frame at her home, this time near the small North Island town of Shannon, in a valley of rich grasslands fringed by the jagged range of the Tararuas. This is the...

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Nancy Potter (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Janet Frame," in International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross, Garland Publishing, 1991, pp. 547-56.

[Potter is an American educator and short story writer who has lived in New Zealand. In the essay below, she provides a brief synopsis of each of Frame's major works and discusses the literary climate of the eras in which they were published.]

Janet Frame has characterized the New Zealand society of her youth as a house with neither basement nor attic. This metaphor illuminates only one aspect of her complicated background. More substantial details of Frame's life are treated impressionistically in her three-volume...

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Carolyn Bliss (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of An Autobiography, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 408-09.

[Bliss is an American writer and critic. In the review below, she considers Frame's An Autobiography "an illuminating tour" of the author's upbringing in New Zealand.]

Contemporary theorists of the autobiography are fairly well agreed that the genre's interest and worth lie less in the "facts" it provides about a historically verifiable life than in the nature of the invented self which the autobiographical text constructs and enacts. The New Zealand writer Janet Frame would probably endorse this critical posture, having adopted it as a compositional...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Beston, John B. "A Bibliography of Janet Frame." World Literature Written in English 17, No. 2 (November 1978): 570-85.

Provides a comprehensive bibliography of work by and about Frame, including unpublished dissertations, translations, and dramatizations.


Beston, John B. "A Brief Biography of Janet Frame." World Literature Written in English 17, No. 2 (November 1978): 565-69.

Offers an overview of Frame's life and works up to 1978.


Brown, Kevin. "Wonder...

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