Janet Paterson Frame Clutha is New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed novelist and a writer with an international reputation. She was born to George Samuel Frame, a train engineer, and Lottie Clarice (Godfrey) Frame, an aspiring writer. The family lived in a series of small towns before settling in Oamaru, the setting for several of her later works. After attending local schools, she enrolled at Dunedin Teachers’ College and at the University of Otago, where she studied psychology. Her teaching ended abruptly in 1945, when she decided to become a writer–she had written as a child and as a college student. She published her first short story in 1946.
Frame’s writing was in part therapy for her loneliness and unhappiness, which culminated with her sister Isabel’s death by drowning in 1947 (another sister had suffered the same fate ten years earlier). Frame’s failure to overcome her bereavement (treated in Daughter Buffalo) added to other personal problems that had earlier resulted in a suicide attempt, and in 1947 she voluntarily committed herself to Seacliff Hospital. During the next eight years she was a patient in mental hospitals, but she continued to write, publishing a collection of short stories, The Lagoon, during this period. In 1954 Frank Sargeson, a noted New Zealand writer, invited her to his estate, where she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry. He also helped her obtain a State Literary Fund grant, and she traveled abroad until 1958, when she settled in London and a physician advised her to continue her “therapeutic” writing. She returned to New Zealand in 1963, and the productivity that characterized the London years (three novels and a book of short stories) continued. She traveled widely, twice working at the prestigious Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and visiting England and France. In 1967 The Pocket Mirror, a collection of poems, was published, followed by more novels; in the 1980’s she published one novel, The Carpathians, but devoted herself primarily to her three-volume autobiography.
Frame’s life is inextricably connected with her novels, which tend to be autobiographical (Owls Do Cry is perhaps the most autobiographical), particularly in terms of her own psychological problems: Faces in the Water is partly the result of prescribed therapy. In fact, she seems more concerned with the world of the unconscious, with characters who reject the modern “real” world and its conformity, and choose instead to live at “the edge of the alphabet,” the title of a novel that concerns the lack of communication between the modern world and the unconscious inner world. In her fiction, individuals have limited options: conformity, suicide, or adaptation, the donning of a mask that frees them from persecution and destruction. (Intensive Care concerns a bureaucracy intent on conformity and control.)
Seen from this perspective, madness is not necessarily an end but a stage in the journey–and Frame’s fiction abounds with voyages and journeys–toward the integrated self. Truth is the result not of rationality but of disorder and madness, which is ironically more productive, imaginative, and real. In A State of Siege, Frame describes a “room two inches behind the eyes,” an Eastern “third eye” superior to the other senses because it transcends the “real,” physical world, allowing for communication with supernatural forces. The voyage to the “mirror city” of the last volume of her autobiography becomes a voyage to the city of the imagination, which mirrors and reflects facts, transforming them into truth.
Frame’s fiction reflects her own rejection of conformity; in form, as well as in content, she has journeyed beyond convention and realism. In her fiction, the narrative itself is suspect; although there appear to be three narrators in Scented Gardens for the Blind, the novel is actually the narration of one character, appropriately an inmate in a mental hospital. The Edge of the Alphabet, clearly an experiment, approaches surrealism; and Daughter Buffalo is a novel within a novel. Like many contemporary novelists, Frame writes reflexive novels about writing and about the more general subject of narration itself. Her most interesting characters create their own worlds.
Though she has published little poetry per se, Frame’s novels are poetic, containing poetry and employing an almost Joycean verbal complexity. Poetic devices and figurative language pervade her novels to such an extent that she has been criticized for obscurantism, and critics have termed her Owls Do Cry an intricate poem. Some of Frame’s themes–the difficulty of communication, the relative absence of coherent characters, and the uncertainty of events being what they seem–in part account for the difficult task of deciphering her fiction. Like James Joyce and William Faulkner, with whom she shares an interest in myth, symbolic landscapes, and literary experimentation, she is difficult to read but ultimately satisfying to those readers interested not in externals but in the interior lives of literary characters.