This novel grew on me the more I read it and the less I expected from it.
A Kiwi Writer In London
The story takes place over one weekend when a young New Zealand novelist named Grace Cleave, who is living in London, takes a train to spend the weekend with Philip, a journalist, his wife and two young children. She has escaped the city for a while after accepting an invitation to visit the family following an interview about her work and ambitions.
She is the author of a few published novels, a writer with an expanding reputation, living in a small, cold, uninspiring flat, moving between her writing desk, her therapist and a nagging yearning to be elsewhere.
Keen to take up the opportunity to escape and the familiarity the visit may offer (they have a connection to her home country), she is disappointed to be confronted by dreadful anxiety once she arrives. Her tendency to analyse everything and to express herself more articulately in her thoughts (or on paper) than in actual conversation makes her feel shameful. She has been invited in her capacity as a writer; she feels sure they expect more from her and sees herself as a disappointment, not measuring up to the perception created by her talent.
Grace was stricken with the terrible certainties and uncertainties of speech…The ritual of spoken communication is so firmly accepted that few people question it or dare to rearrange it. If you look towards someone, speak to that person, saying You, you, you, then what you say refers to that person; it’s all so simple.
Not being a human being and not being practiced in the art of verbal communication, Grace was used to experiencing moments of terror when her mind questioned or rearranged the established ritual; when commonplace certainties became, from her point of view, alarming uncertainties.
During the visit, many instances, objects and mutterings remind her of her own faraway home, memories of childhood intercede and brilliant metaphors come to her fully formed. It was as if she were being filled with future content and yet the contrast with how she came across to others was painful for her to witness.
Filled with longing born out of the loneliness of her self-imposed exile, she hoped to fill that void by being with someone who valued her work and understood her connection to a landscape elsewhere.
“So I, a migratory bird, am suffering from the need to return to the place I have come from before the season and sun are right for my return. Do I meet spring summer or winter? Here I live in a perpetual other season unable to read in the sky, the sun, the temperature, the signs for returning. Is it homesickness – ‘I know a place whereon…’ the matagouri, the manuka, the cabbage tree grow…”
A Migratory Bird
In her dream life, day or night, there are moments when Grace thinks of herself as a migratory bird. It adds something to her work, to be able to retreat into this imagined form and see things from another perspective.
“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”
It is all the more brilliant, having learned that it was published posthumously, that it is semi autobiographical, though written twenty years before any of her own autobiographical works. She set the novel aside referring to it as ’embarrassingly personal’. The character of Philip was based on a Guardian journalist who had interviewed her.
“I matter. I fly alone, apart from the flock, on long journeys through storm and clear skies to another summer. Hear me!”
Highly recommended for Janet Frame fans.
Janet Frame, Author
Janet Frame died on January 29 2004 at the age of 79. She wrote novels, poems, and a three-volume autobiography that were read and admired worldwide. She won many awards and was short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
‘a sharp drama, of fleeing and missing, home’ – Guardian review by Catherine Taylor
Short Biography of Janet Frame – by Patrick Evans Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
The Janet Frame Collection, NZ On Screen – a collection of films and material relating to Janet Frame
Wrestling With the Angel – a brilliant biography written by esteemed historian Michael King