“To the Is-Land” by Janet Frame is an autobiography showing us the author’s childhood in New Zealand

To the Is-Land by Janet Frame is the first instalment of the author’s biography and deals with her childhood in New Zealand just before WW2. The author grew up as one of five surviving children of their father who worked for the railway and their mother who aspired to be a poet. They lived in poverty but always managed to keep a roof over their heads.

The author has very well developed memories from an early age, although I suppose that details could have been filled in by other family members. The family moved around during her early childhood in rural areas and then settled in a town although they still had the space to keep a cow and had countryside around them; swamp and tree plantations as well as a river.

Although the family struggled financially they coped well enough until Janet’s brother developed epilepsy. This cost a huge amount in medical fees and seeking a cure. When the condition continued resentment built up and his parents treated him as though he could prevent the fits by willpower alone. Concentration on the one child by her mother meant that Janet and her sisters’ physical needs were neglected and that they ran wild. As the depression hit New Zealand they were more financially stretched and Janet had ill-fitting school uniforms and realised that she had no close friends because she smelled.

This autobiography will resonate with anyone who felt that they didn’t fit in for some reason. The author shows excellently how she wasn’t part of the “in crowd” and wasn’t appreciated by most of her teachers although she was bright. The parenting she received was haphazard and inconsistent and didn’t meet all her needs. She lived with her brother’s disability and growing alienation from the family and with the early death of her older sister. The world of the imagination and poetry especially were important to the growing girl but she had no real guidance through these and her developing talent was nurtured by no one.

This is a well written autobiography which shows us the mind and thoughts of Janet as she grows. When you know that she became an award winning modern novelist you look for beginnings in her childhood (I admit that I have never read any of Janet Frame’s books). The book is also excellent in portraying the physical landscape and the culture and society of New Zealand at the time.