Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame

Michael King, Author
Michael King, Author Counterpoint LLC $30 (440p) ISBN 978-1-58243-069-0
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
Paperback - 583 pages - 978-1-58243-185-7
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Remarkable and resilient, Janet Frame is New Zealand's most accomplished writer. She's the author of 11 novels, dozens of poems and stories and three volumes of autobiography (including the work that inspired Jane Campion's film An Angel at My Table). Now in her 70s and having suffered a stroke, she is largely silent. In this rigorously researched authorized biography, fellow New Zealander King (Death of a Rainbow Warrior) looks back over Frame's anguished life. At her request, the book--which draws from previously unavailable personal documents--lacks critical literary analysis (although King does note that her writing conveys the ""sense that reality itself is a fiction, and one's grasp on it no more than preposterous pretense and pretension""). But the focus here is not on Frame's works; instead, King describes her life as wordsmith and survivor. In effect two books, the first half of Wrestling with the Angel is a dramatic account of Frame's struggle to survive a painful and emotionally troubled life (two of her sisters drowned, and she attempted suicide) and to write. King details Frame's early life--her travels into and out of psychiatric hospitals (where her anxiety neuroses were dangerously misdiagnosed as schizophrenia--she narrowly escaped a lobotomy)--as well as the writing career she began in her mid-30s. In the anticlimactic second half of the book, he describes Frame's succ s d'estime: the literary prizes she won, the money troubles that followed and her compulsive moving from place to place (five times in one two-year period), in New Zealand and abroad, which testified to the persistence of her unexorcised anxieties. King's biography is a competent account of an unusual life--though no replacement for Frame's autobiography. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Aug.)
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