An Angel at My Table is the title of the second volume of the three-part autobiography of New Zealand novelist, Janet Frame.
Despite the fact that she had a fiction writing career spanning more than forty years, and is one of the most critically acclaimed writers the country has ever produced, it is for this book, more than any of her fiction, that she is chiefly known.
Why? Because the story it tells is part-horror, part-hope. It describes seven years of harrowing experiences for Frame, but it is written in beautiful, compelling language, and sprinkled with subtle humour.
Fram describes how, as a student, she was shy and 'different', and how this, along with a suicide attempt, led to her being committed to a mental hospital.
The world of insanity she encountered had a profound effect on her -- she saw people who seemed lost in themselves, and abandoned by society and their loved ones in a strange purgatory. She says, "Many patients confined in other wards... had no name, only a nickname, no past, no future, only an imprisoned Now, an eternal Is -Land without its accompanying horizons...."
She, herself, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and she was given electric shock therapy -- something she found terrifying.
What the system seemed to demand of its patients was conformity "I behaved as others around me behaved. I who had learned the language, spoke and acted that language. I felt utterly alone. There was no one to talk to... you were locked up, you did as you were told or else, and that was that."
The years dragged on and she wrote while in the institution. In a situation which seems almost to convenient and fortuitous to be true -- except that it was true, it was her writing which saved her -- both from incarceration, and from much worse.
Frame, like many other seriously depressed patients, was on a waiting list for a leucotomy (a brain operation to sever the connections between the frontal lobe and underlying structures; a procedure which left patients dull and apathetic and carried a considerable risk of epilepsy). It was at this point she won the Hubert Church literary prize for her book The Lagoon. -- and was removed from the waiting list.
Without recognition of her writing at that particular time, she would have been left unable to write, docile and dehumanised. This fortunate chance is the 'Angel' of the book's title, and she points out that many others were not so lucky or so protected.
A book well worth reading.