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'Towards Another Summer,' An Outsider Looks In

May 14, 2009

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When New Zealand writer Janet Frame died in 2004, she left behind almost 20 volumes of fiction, poetry, short stories and memoir, along with a giant hole in the literary community. It turns out she also left behind a few works she felt were too personal to publish during her lifetime.

Towards Another Summer is one such novel. Narrator Grace Cleave shares personal characteristics with Frame, including a shock of curly red hair, a New Zealand background, a London address and a diagnosis of mental illness, which Frame previously wrote about in her beloved memoir that was later made into a film, An Angel at My Table.

Towards Another Summer unfolds over one weekend. The normally reclusive Cleave accepts an invitation to spend a holiday with an acquaintance and his family. Ann and Philip and their two children are so normal and loving and warm that Cleave has no idea how to interact with them. When they disagree on a minor matter, she expects violence and tries to "pretend herself into invisibility."

She longs to explain to her hosts that the reason she seems so odd is because she has recently discovered she is not really a person: "I am a migratory bird," she says, perhaps a godwit. It's a consoling thought — if she were a bird it would help explain her failure to connect. She wishes she could fit their expectation of a writer by saying witty and fascinating things, but instead she struggles to complete sentences. She sees the family's quiet domesticity both as alluring and painfully restrictive.

Frame's writing is bird-like, bobbing and hopping around, occasionally building so much momentum it's as if the prose is trying to take flight. Frame wrote and lived with such exquisite sensitivity, even a story about a weekend holiday can, in her hands, be shattering. What makes the loss of Frame's talent a touch less shattering is the unearthing of a work as enthralling and honest as Towards Another Summer.

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Towards Another Summer
By Janet Frame
Hardcover, 218 pages
Counterpoint
List Price: $24

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