by Janet Frame; Berkeley, California, Counterpoint, 2009, 208 pages, $24
Dr. Heath is a psychiatrist, Cambridge Memorial Hospital, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.
This is clearly an autobiographical novel, described on the fly leaf as "written in 1963 when New Zealand writer Janet Frame was in London, this is the first publication of a novel she considered too personal to be published in her lifetime" (she died in 2004).
Almost the only character in the book, Grace Cleave is a New Zealand writer living in London. Written in the third person, most of the content is mainly the turmoil in Grace's head, as she struggles to relate to the admiring people intruding into her life. These thoughts are interspersed with reminiscences of her family and childhood. Most of the action is the neurotic nightmare of a weekend spent at the home of journalist Philip Thirkettle, his wife, and small children in Northern England.
Grace is both famous and mentally disturbed. This sets up a delicious and amusing irony. There are the trappings of the famous Grace, represented by the interview by Thirkettle, requests for book signings, an interview on BBC Radio, and admiring references to her stories in The New Yorker. Then there is the real Grace, whose sense of self is abysmally vague and inadequate. Grace does not keep copies of her books; she has to borrow one for the BBC interview "to find out what it is about" and is completely tongue-tied in the face of admiring inquiries. My guess at the diagnosis of character Grace Cleave (and author Janet Frame) is at least severe social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. But there is clearly more—schizotypal personality disorder, I thought; high-level autistic spectrum disorder, according to Abrahamson (1).
Throughout the book is the recurring motif that Grace is a "migratory bird." This includes a description of her literally turning into a migratory bird, "as she felt on the skin of her arms and legs, her breasts and belly, and even the top of her head tiny prickling beginning of the growth of feathers." I could not decide whether this was a delusion, magic realism, a comforting fantasy, or a metaphor for the lonely exile. Perhaps my confusion here is similar to that experienced by those who encountered the author, including her psychiatrists.
Frame's psychiatric history is intriguing and confusing and inexorably intertwined with her writing and her literary life. In and out of New Zealand mental hospitals for nine years, she was diagnosed as having schizophrenia. She narrowly escaped a scheduled lobotomy—cancelled when news arrived that she had just received New Zealand's most prestigious literary prize for her first book. During Frame's voluntary admission to London's famous Maudsley hospital, an American psychiatrist told her that she did not have schizophrenia; no alternative diagnosis was offered, but she was then able to accept that she was different from other people. She was advised to live alone and to socialize only if she felt like it. For recovery advocates, there is a rich vein of recovery narrative to be tapped here.
Her autobiography Angel at My Table was made into a film, which won prizes at Venice and Toronto film festivals and launched Jane Campion's career. Frame was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 2003.
Towards Another Summer is beautifully written: it offers poetic prose, sharp insights into family life, and the best description of the agony of social anxiety disorder you will ever read.
The reviewer reports no competing interests.
1.Abrahamson S: Did Janet Frame have high-functioning autism? New Zealand Medical Journal 120(1263), 2007