Thursday, April 2, 2009

REVIEW: Towards Another Summer, by Janet Frame

Towards Another Summer, by Janet Frame. Published 2009 by Counterpoint.

Click here to buy Towards Another Summer from your favorite indie bookseller.

I received Towards Another Summer by surprise from Counterpoint, and it couldn't have been a more pleasant surprise. I'd heard of the author, New Zealand writer Janet Frame, having seen Jane Campion's 1990 biopic "An Angel at My Table", but I'd never read any of her books and I thought, what a nice treat.

The book was a treat too- of an unusual variety.

Don't get me wrong- I didn't hate it, and I didn't even dislike it, but it's not your usual literary, quasi-autobiographical stroll through the park. Frame was a troubled woman who struggled with mental illness and social anxiety her entire life, even narrowly avoiding a lobotomy as a young woman. She was also a gifted and prolific writer who won every award she was qualified for from her native New Zealand, including awards for fiction, poetry and literature for children. Towards Another Summer was a book that she considered so personal that she wanted it published only posthumously.

The action of Towards Another Summer takes place over a single weekend, as a writer named Grace Cleave, suffering from writer's block, goes to spend the weekend with Phillip and Anne, a married couple with an idyllicly perfect life. Their life, as Grace sees it, is a near perfect picture of domestic bliss, complete with two adorable children. Grace admires them but does not envy them, and much of her inner dialogue is taken up with her struggle to function socially.
Oh God, she thought, I can't survive the weekend, I can't go among people for three whole days, talking to them, sharing meals with them, having to decide when to join them and when to leave them alone, when to go to bed, when to get up. What would they say if they knew I had changed to a migratory bird? I can't face it. What shall I say, how shall I Make sentences, link words, subject, verb, predicate, while they are listening?
The fantasy of being a "migratory bird" is Grace's refuge from the pressure to socialize; it weighs on her constantly, to the point that she takes long walks by herself to avoid conversation, even thinks about returning home early to curtail her anxiety. From time to time Grace returns to memories of childhood- poverty, lack of warmth from her parents and frequent moving- which seem to only reinforce her sense of alienation. In the present tense, her inner turmoil breaks through at times and leads her to make awkward comments which only heighten her insecurity- but which are probably no big deal to her listener. All in all it's a sharp portrait of an intelligent woman pushing her way through her fears.

I'm glad I read Towards Another Summer. It's not always the easiest or lightest read out there but Frame is a lovely prose stylist who excels at creating this Grace, who thinks herself weak but only expresses the kinds of fears many people experience, though perhaps she experiences them to a greater degree than some. I liked Grace; I found her to be a thoughtful, unique character, full of contradictions and complications- very real, in other words. She is lonely- an immigrant from New Zealand in the United Kingdom, she is thirsty for contact with her country and culture yet eschews company and actively seeks solitude rather than solicitude. The book definitely isn't for everyone but if you're looking for a literary read off the beaten path, you might consider Towards Another Summer.

Rating: BACKLIST


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.