A god-awful weekend

It´s a rare thing to find a truly original novel, but this one is, I think. Janet Frame´s "Towards Another Summer" was published posthumously in 2007, three years after her death. The only thing I knew about her was that she was from New Zeeland, that she was nearly lobotomized in her youth, and that she was rumoured for the Nobel Prize about ten years ago.

This novel is set in the late 50´s, early 60´s. Thirty-something author Grace Cleave lives and works in London and accepts an invitation to spend a weekend with a writer colleague and his family. It becomes a rather painful experience, as she has recently spent a few weeks in a psychiatric hospital and is almost completely unable to connect with others. The narrative goes back and forth between her struggles to decipher the social codes and find normal things to say, and flashbacks into memories of her childhood in New Zeeland. She feels the expectation from her hosts to deliver interesting conversation, being the clever and gifted author that she is, and while she indeed has a lot of interesting, fascinating thoughts, they are also rather disturbing. She has enough self-control to know that if she actually says what she thinks, they will think her completely mad.

She thinks she is a bird, for exemple. A migrating bird. Not a human at all. She seriously thinks this. She also sometimes mistakes her hosts for her parents and when she hears a phrase, a tone of voice, she expects a whole chain of events that never comes. In her mind, one person merges with another and the past and the present connects. There are a lot of hints to trauma from her childhood, I get the sense that she has fled New Zeeland, that she is in England to find solitude more than anything. And she thinks a lot about words. This may sound very serious and tragic, but there is actually plenty of humour in it.

According to the back cover this book was written in 1963, but Frame considered it so private that she decided to have it published after her death. And a quick google confirms that the story is autobiographical. There seem to have been a bit of speculation about what was really wrong with her. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was young, but this was later dismissed. Someone has speculated that she had some form of autism, but I don´t know - it seems to me that she might just have been introvert, sensitive and traumatized. Or what about this, I read the article only yesterday. There are similarities to what Grace experiences in the novel.

The story is all about how she experiences this weekend, what goes on inside her. If her hosts had written an account of it, she may have come across as both interesting and as normal as one would expect from an author-genius. I think a lot of readers, like myself, can identify with feeling alien some of the time, in some company. Not that I think anyone notices, as long as one doesn´t start to crow like a bird or something. Even Grace Cleave manages not to crow. And when she eventually escapes, a day sooner than arranged, I am relieved for her.

This is a definite re-read. I may even have to buy this one.

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