Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame

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Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: New Zealand writer Grace Cleave is living in London and struggling with work, when she accepts an invitation to spend the weekend with friends in the North. towards another summer is as much about the author's childhood as it is about her present inabilities to relate to the people around her. Hard going to begin with, it rewards perseverance with some exceptionally adept and truly poetic prose.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844085101

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Janet Frame, who died in 2004, is acknowledged as one of the most distinguished writers to come out of New Zealand. She won just about every prize going, wrote an autobiography (An Angel at My Table) that is adjudged to be a classic of the genre and inspired a similarly appreciated film, was awarded a CBE and honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters…

…and to my shame I'd never heard of her.

So unlike every other review you'll read or have already read of towards another summer (capital letters are eschewed in the title), what follows will make no comparisons with her later work, will draw few parallels with the reality of her life but will, instead, see the book as a book… standing or failing alone as books are meant to do.

For the record however this novel was written in 1963, but the author deemed it too personal to be published during her lifetime. No instructions authorising or prohibiting posthumous publication were found – but two bound copies of the book securely stored at separate locations indicate that Frame was not totally against the idea.

The exposition (it can hardly be called a story) centres upon the exiled writer Grace Cleave. Struggling to finish her current novel in London, and increasingly homesick for her beloved New Zealand, she feels herself to have become a migratory bird. Hence the title of the book, a quote from Brasch's poem The Islands:

…and from their haunted bay
The godwits vanish towards another summer

To begin with it is unclear as to whether the writer sees this as simple analogy for her feeling of being so far from the true summers of her homeland, or whether there might not be a degree of delusion implying the feeling to be somewhat more literal.

Certainly Grace Cleave feels herself apart from the norms of humanity. As a writer, words are her life and her lifeline… but only when written. When forced to speak, be it in formal interviews about her latest publication, or simply in the ordinary social round, she struggles to find anything at all to say. At one point her stream of consciousness meanderings (silent in her head for how could they be shared?) speaks of prostituting words to make her living. Is that the point? That words are things one must shepherd and control, restrain. They cannot be freed to simply vanish on the air and create what ever ill- or un-considered effect they might.

This inept social migratory bird accepts an invitation to visit old friends in the North of England, and in doing so submits herself to a purgatory of sociability. That her hosts are not themselves the most sociable of people is not enough to stop her seeking refuge from them: by taking a walk, going to her room, idling thumbing through the books from the shelves.

For such a short work (at just over 200 pages)…Towards Another Summer is surprisingly difficult to get into. The first four or five chapters are a little obscure and heavy going, but it is worth the ploughing through. As soon as Grace starts to tell of her childhood – the book changes and becomes worth reading. Born and brought up in the poverty of the rail yard gives her a particular view of the world, but there are no more dramatic episodes in her past than there are the weekend which brings forth the memories. It is simply that in the telling of them, Frame becomes at once poetic and real. And in the telling of the past, the present makes an odd kind of sense.

However personal the author felt this book was, it gives away no secrets – unless she spent her entire life in utter terror of being found out (but then which of us doesn't?), and truly felt herself unloved. The pages echo not just with homesickness, but with a profound loneliness.

Clearly not one for the thrill-seekers, but for those who love language, perhaps especially for those of us who find it easier to write than to speak, there is a treasure of expression in these pages. She speaks of war as something which moved like an iceberg or a cloud and of northern English weather in winter as having a draught from somewhere in the sky, as if the northern door leading to the homes of the Gods had been left open: they were the relentless Gods – Thunder, War, Revenge, Night who showed no mercy to mere mortals.

Bear with Ms Frame through the dissonance of the early pages and you will be rewarded with a telling that will not only have you reaching for more of her work…but also for the work of those New Zealand poets around whose muse she has strung this tale.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

In a strange way, if this work reminded me of anything else I've read recently it would be Peura's At the Edge of Light set at the other end of the world from New Zealand, but with the same haunting quality.

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Buy Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame at Amazon.com.

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