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Janet Frame, Towards Another Summer – TLS

30/08/2008

It’s a peculiar feeling, to read a novel set in the house where you grew up. In the summer of 1963 my family moved to 30 Princes Road in Heaton Moor, a suburb of Stockport. When we descended on that blistering day there were eight of us: parents, grandparents, a brother, two sisters, and three-year-old me. Shooed from a house covered in tea-chests, my siblings and I spread out across the road, bare toes to the hot tarmac, surveying our new domain. It’s the first memory I have and it’s born of paradox: the sensation of being at once a stranger and at home. A similar uncertainty about one’s place, and therefore one’s meaning, hovers about Towards Another Summer, Janet Frame’s ruminative novel about what a writer risks – silence, exile and isolation – in the name of self-discovery.

The Princes Road house had passed down in a chain of Manchester Guardian families. Earlier occupants included the Fays, the Shrapnels, and our predeccessors the Moorhouses – whom we ousted from the four bedroom Victorian semi – Geoffrey, his New Zealand wife, Jan, and their two children. This “novel-length autobiographical essay” is the product of a weekend Frame spent there, the winter before our arrival. She was 38 and had been away from New Zealand for six years, travelling in Europe, settling finally in London, but still struggling to acclimatize to the drabness, the unremitting negative of soot and snow. Her trip up north was preceded by trouble with the novel she was working on, The Adaptable Man (published eventually in 1965), and by a self-imposed stay at the Maudsley Hospital. Hoping to escape these tribulations, she accepted an invitation from Moorhouse, who’d interviewed her in London, sensed her at odds and out of place, and extended a hand of friendship.

For Frame, too, the house in Princes Road was a house of memory. The book’s protagonist, Grace Cleave, is lodged in the attic, surrounded by maps and relics from home. Looking out of her frosted window (there is no central heating; only matting on the floor) to a world etched in black and white, she summons another country – warm, coloured, lit up – that is both her antipodean home, but also the imaginative pull of the past: “What am I doing on this side of the world?” she wonders.

Although Frame considered the book “embarrassingly personal”, and put it aside for many years, its dialectical magic seems to have worked in the way she intended. The effort of eking out her past to confront herself in the present pulled her back from the abyss, solving the problem of whether she would be an English or New Zealand writer (she boarded the Corinthian for home a few months later), and, more importantly, returning her to the synthesis of writing itself – a “no man’s land”, as she envisages it here, the only place she could do as she pleased: “run, dance, shout, starve, [even] die.” A freedom she exercised in subsequent novels, stories, poems, and most powerfully in the autobiographical trilogy she wrote in the 1980s – To The Island, An Angel at My Table, The Envoy from Mirror City – for which this book broke ground.

Janet Frame in London, early 1960s

Janet Frame in London, early 1960s

But does Towards Another Summer succeed in its own right? Written in a hurry, between March and May 1963, it’s one of those odd cases in women’s fiction, scarcely a novel at all, that despite its tenuousness – or rather because of it – demands attention. Providing little in the way of the novel’s conventional consolations, it is virtually plotless (immigrant woman spends weekend with strangers, thinks of home, nothing happens), but lurking behind this modest edifice is something stronger, something willed and crafty.

Grace begins in fledgling awkwardness, already a “successful lady author”, yet painfully ill at ease, even in the book-strewn disarray of her host and his young family. As the weekend progresses her ineptitude turns into something more concerted. She names her condition – she is “a migratory bird” – and her animal strangeness takes on Nietzschean qualities of perversity and pride. Grace discovers in her bird’s eye view powers unavailable to the mere mortal: “Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.” This delirious flight into the imagination increases as she retreats from social interaction – refusing to say what is on her mind for fear she will be misconstrued or forced into “the stain” of cliché. She moves “farther away from the human world”, coming precariously close to insanity.

Such female beastliness places her, of course, inside the House of Fiction, even if only in the women’s room – those unheimlich nether regions, usually located in the outhouse, basement or attic. As children in New Zealand, Frame and her siblings discovered the Brontës, styling their homemade novels and poems on those of the Yorkshire clan. The myth-making held up in unimagined ways: the premature deaths of two sisters, a wild, epileptic brother, isolation and brushes with madness, all reinforced the identification. So it’s not surprising when she gets to England she casts her northern sojourn in broad, Brontëish strokes. Rather than the golf course the road actually stopped at, she imagines this suburban street backing onto a wild moor (Heaton Moor/Geoffrey Moorhouse); the winter is “ice-edged”; the doors chained; and the two children of the house appear like “tiny moving candle-flames” in their white nighties.

At the end of her turbulent weekend Grace stands alone in the attic. Not quite Brontë’s madwoman, but like her, something less than fully human – a bird-woman. In this disguise she can find her way home at last. But the nest she has feathered is also a trap, keeping her “silent, apart from all human beings”. Quite whether Janet Frame, a poet of the uncherished and the obscure, intended this as a warning or a seduction, is uncertain. But her lingering image of a fabulous migratory dreambird – redolent of soaring imagination, but also of flight from human indifference – is one that generations of women writers have wrestled with: “She felt the world go dark with sudden exclusion and she was beating her wings against the door of the dark but no one opened the door; indeed, no one heard.”

A version of this review appeared as ‘Out of place’ in the TLS on 11.7.2008.

Me and gun-slinging neighbour kid, outside 30 Princes Road, Stockport, 1964.

Me & gun-slinging neighbour kid, outside 30 Princes Road, Stockport, 1964.

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