By Janet Frame
Random House, NZ$30 | Reviewed by Joan Fleming

JANET FRAME wrote, “The truth is always painful to extract whether it be truth of fact or fiction.” In her posthumous novel, Towards Another Summer, that pain is liquid, like a river she can’t step out of – eddying the reader along on the flotsam and jetsam of her richly littered inner world.

Frame wrote Towards Another Summer nearly 45 years ago, after a weekend visit to the home of a journalist, his New Zealand-born wife and their neat, loving children in the north of England. Frame said the weekend had become “stuck in the gullet” of the novel she was working on at the time, The Adaptable Man. She considered Towards Another Summer too personal to be published in her lifetime – quite a claim, given the extraordinarily confessional nature of her published autobiographies, written some twenty years later.

Paralyzed by anxiety, the protagonist, New Zealand expatriate novelist Grace Cleave, moves messily through the warmth and intimacy of a stranger’s home while struggling to answer the question: where is one at home in the world?

Not much happens during the weekend. Or, a lot happens: between the cripplingly awkward spaces where Grace Cleave scrabbles to say something more intelligible than yes, thank you or no, thank you to her hosts, she navigates a huge memory-space where ideas and language make a whistling sound loud enough to muffle her feeble attempts at conversation. Repeatedly, she insists that she’s turned into a migratory bird, (though not out loud, of course), tattooing the ink of her otherness on the underside of her distressed bird’s heart.

Grace Cleave is by turns anguished, jealous, funny, mournful, self-deprecating and generous. Her acerbic judgements of the happy family turn quickly to self-rebukes; then convincing herself to attempt warmth and connection, she swoops again to criticise her own dull platitudes. But the character’s generosity comes with her sweeping explorations of a life lived so richly on the inside that it robs her personal relationships into poverty.

Metaphysical and meditative, the novel moves through a borderless land where the journalist and his wife are transformed into Grace’s own mother and father; domestic scenes of the Winchley kitchen dissolve into her childhood in Oamaru; and she’s a child again, only just learning her way through the world. These transportations overflow the boundaries of sense. People shed their separating skins and feather together, air-borne on a rising river-tide. Grace enacts a writer’s fierce possession of certain words and phrases, and the mention of these spins her into a vivid past: years pass, sisters die, someone threatens, someone submits, someone comes haunting – all in the time it takes for her hosts to exchange a brief, concerned look.

Charles Brasch’s eponymous poem echoes through the anguished world of the weekend: “and from their haunted bay/ the godwits vanish towards another summer…distance looks our way;/ and none knows where he will lie down at night.” Exiled and un-belonging, Grace Cleave keeps vanishing, invisibly, into the longing of that distance, into an inner landscape that is both an escape and an arrival. The distance looks her way, and she can’t help but look back, breath deep, and dive in.