Low Action, Vibrant Language: Vanda Symon on Janet Frame’s Towards Another Summer

toward another summer

Towards Another Summer, Janet Frame, Counterpoint Press

I am a latecomer to the writings of Janet Frame and, I fear like many of my fellow countrymen, I had preconceived notions that her work would be heavy going and dark. Towards Another Summer challenged those expectations and delivered a story that while low in action, was vibrant in language and rich in warmth and humour. The book was an unexpected pleasure.

Janet Frame spent time in and out of mental institutions as a young woman, and was very close to being lobotomised until her doctors were convinced otherwise by her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories winning a prestigious literary award. In those days she was seen as abnormal and different to the point of requiring treatment. I would like to think in the modern day she would have been seen as different and celebrated. Towards Another Summer is a novel Frame wrote in 1963 but which was too personal to be published until after her death in 2004, and it is easy to see why as it is a thinly disguised portrait of the writer.

Grace Cleave is an expatriate New Zealander and writer living in London and struggling with thoughts of where she belongs, and who or what she is. She has, in fact, come to the realisation she is a migratory bird, “In a way it was a relief to discover her true identity. For so long she had felt not-human, yet had been unable to move towards an alternate species…”

She is invited to spend the weekend north in Relham with Philip and Anne Thirkettle and thus the agonising begins from the moment she posts the acceptance card and “worried all the way home that her arm was not long enough to reach down, find her letter, tear it to pieces to be thrown over the fence in bold litter-lout fashion…”

She is overwhelmed by the prospect of social niceties, often to the point of paralysis. Frame paints the portrait of Grace’s excruciating social discomfort so vividly I ached for her. Her one consolation in accepting the Thirkettle’s offer is she thinks they don’t have children, but then discovers to her horror, she is mistaken: “There’s still time, she thought wildly, there’s still time to escape: children, staring, mocking, pitying, understanding – that was the worst – understanding; they would know everything; perhaps they would come up to her and say, What is the pineal gland? Describe your flight feathers. Define Coriolos force.”

Adult conversation also requires a tightrope walk between listening and preparing appropriate responses to avoid further discomfort, in this instance after dinner conversation on the topic of a notable book. “Meanwhile Grace was dividing her mind between studying Philip and Anne and their life together, and trying to arrange, ready for its appearance in speech, the truth of her relationship with Ulysses. She found that her memory had placed Ulysses, not under the heading of Literature, but in the file which held the embarrassing and painful facts of college life.”

Towards Another Summer is a very internalised book, from Grace’s painstaking observations and reactions to her extremely uncomfortable weekend away, to the questions it asks of where she belongs and her reminiscence of her New Zealand childhood. This may sound heavy going and potentially tedious, but it is far from it. The author’s warmth and humour radiates through out, even in the bleakest of descriptions and settings. This excerpt is a particular favourite.

“There seemed nowhere to escape from the snow-filled, soot-filled wind. It blew upon their skin as if their outer layer of skin had been peeled away leaving a raw rasping wound spread over their body. They struggled along the grey streets in a bizarre enactment of an Arctic expedition which could have been recorded in the usual dramatic diary – ‘Supply of warmth diminishing; hope to reach library and market by five-thirty; hopes failing…’ Grace would not have been surprised if Philip had suddenly stopped and said, with a stricken look on his face, ‘I’m going a while. I may be some time…’

What comes through strongly in this novel about a fairly average weekend away is the author’s mischievous sense of humour, in fact I finished it admiring the temerity of a writer who challenged head on, and poked fun at the world’s seeming obsession with her mental health status and her supposed shy and retiring nature. It is a superbly written novel that looks at identity and belonging, and asks what and where is home.