In the 1950s three new writers appeared whose work was at once acclaimed, Janet Frame, Ian Cross, Sylvia Ashton-Warner.
Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry, 1957, is in the tradition of Virginia Woolf, expressing with adventurous technical complexity a private vision of life. The Withers family live in a little New Zealand town, “Waimaru”, but Janet Frame is not concerned with local manifestations so much as with life itself, with “something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child”. She makes a penetrating examination of “normal” values, of “what is treasure and not treasure”, and of the abysses that lie below the threshold of sanity. Owls Do Cry is a rich, poetic work of real distinction.
Ian Cross now has three novels in print, The God Boy, 1957, The Backward Sex, 1960, and After Anzac Day, 1961. The God Boy, though reminiscent of the literature of American teenagers, is a very New Zealand book. A 13-year-old boy recalls and puzzles at the parental drama and disaster in which he had been involved two years before, adopting in the end an adolescent defiance, an attitude of “I don't care”, even about God. The novel is remarkably successful in evoking the atmosphere of a boy's world in a small North Island township today. The similarity of the material and technique in The Backward Sex raised some doubts about Cross's staying power, but After Anzac Day ranges more widely, picturing the contemporary adult New Zealand world.
Sylvia Ashton-Warner in Spinster, 1958, is not as finely controlled as these two writers, but is equally adventurous. The originality of her subject-matter and the force of her vision outweigh the sentimentality and other deficiencies of a plot geared too closely to the presuppositions of popular romance. Spinster is a study of relationship and communication, the “something that goes between Thee and Me”, between, that is, men and women, adults and children, white child and brown. The novel rests firmly upon the author's experience in country infant school rooms, and derives some of its quality from unorthodox beliefs about teaching. Nothing as good as the scenes with the children is to be found anywhere in New Zealand literature about Maori and Pakeha, though Hamilton Grieve in Sketches from Maoriland, 1939, dealt with similar school material. Sylvia Ashton-Warner is not in full control of the lush confessional prose in which she makes her heroine pour out her emotions, but so much in the book is brilliant that its flaws can be overlooked. Of her second novel, Incense to Idols, 1960, the same cannot be said.
Also contributing to the surge of good fiction in the 1950s is Ruth France's novel, The Race, 1958, founded on a Cook Strait yachting disaster. The men at sea and the womenfolk waiting for news at home are presented alternately day by day in a neat story.
Noel Hilliard's novel Maori Girl, 1960, about the urbanised Maori, has already been discussed; it is another item in our literature of protest.