Posts Tagged ‘Janet Frame’


(Bear with me everyone – I know I should be doing my round-up post for April – but I really didn’t want to do another round-up post so soon, so I haven’t. It may see what I did there – turn up later in the week).

This beautiful anniversary edition of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was one of those beautiful editions Virago sent me to celebrate the VMC anniversary. This edition and the other anniversary editions are out in a day or two I believe – and they are beautifully produced editions.

This novel completely blew me away. I haven’t read Janet Frame before –  I had heard of her famous autobiography An Angel at my Table – though I can’t say I knew the name of Janet Frame in connection with it. I feel as if I should have done – because Janet Frame’s own story is extraordinary – and rather terrifying. New Zealand writer Janet Frame spent years being admitted to psychiatric hospitals where she was treated with ECT and insulin. While she was still a patient in hospital, Janet Frame’s first collection of short stories was published, and won a prestigious award. The news of the award led to her doctors cancelling her scheduled lobotomy, I just shudder at what would have happened to this wonderfully talented woman had not that news filtered through. Frame was eventually discharged from hospital – and went on to enjoy a long and prolific writing career, she left New Zealand for some years and travelled in Europe and the US. While in London Frame was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and her psychiatrist encouraged her to keep writing.

Faces in the Water, the second of Frame’s novels, takes us to the world of New Zealand’s psychiatric wards. It is really quite dazzling; Frames prose is perfect. This heavily autobiographical novel has difficult themes, telling the painful stories of women like Frame. Yet, somehow, I didn’t find it a difficult novel to read, a lot of it is shocking and rather disturbing – but somehow it manages to be a compelling and even enjoyable read.

Istina Mavers is the narrator of this novel, a young woman and former teacher who has lost her sense of herself, and her grip on reality. Istina finds herself in Cliffhaven – a psychiatric hospital.

“And at times I murmured the token phrase to the doctor, ‘When can I go home?’ knowing that home was the place where I least desired to be. There they would watch me for signs of abnormality, like ferrets around a rabbit burrow waiting for the rabbit to appear.”

Here she is surrounded by other patients, introduced to the often frightening routines and rules and subject to the vagaries of those supposed to be caring for her. Here, Frame reproduces the sense of powerlessness and fear endured by patients on a daily basis, brilliantly.

Each morning Istina and the other patients wait anxiously to see whether they will be called in to breakfast – or instead selected for the terrifying ECT treatment. The fear of this horrific treatment is quite palpable. Almost like a prisoner granted an exercise period, Istina walks in the grounds, glimpsing the world beyond, a world she no longer feels a part of.

“We stood at the gate, considering the marvel of the World where people, such is the deception of memory, did as they pleased, owned furniture, dressing tables with doilies on them and wardrobes with mirrors; and doors they could open and shut and open as many times as they chose; and no name tapes sewn inside the neck of their clothes; and handbags to carry, with nail files and make-up; and no one to watch while they were eating and to collect and count the knives afterwards and say in a frightening voice, ‘Rise, Ladies.’

In time Istina is discharged and she goes North to stay with her sister, brother-in-law and their children. However, it isn’t long before Istina is back in hospital – this time the hospital is Treecroft – with different rules, different ways of doing things, but always the same fear – that you are one of those who will never go home.

“And the days passed, packing and piling themselves together like sheets of absorbent material, deadening the sound of our lives, even to ourselves, so that perhaps if a tomorrow ever came it would not hear us; its new days would bury us, in its own name; we would be like people entombed when the rescuers, walking about in the dark waving lanterns and calling to us, eventually give up because no one answers them; sometimes they dig and find the victims dead.”

Later, following a short period back home, Istina is back where she started at Cliffhaven – years have gone by, and it seems as if her whole world has been that of a psychiatric ward where others make crucial decisions for her. Here Istina first hears that her doctors are considering the operation – the leucotomy (aka lobotomy) – and she is terrified. All around her nursing staff talk brightly of the wonders of the changed personality. She will be able to leave hospital get a job – yet Istina remembers those taken out the back doors to the mortuary, or left shells of their former selves.

Faces in the Water is an extraordinary novel, written in lyrical, luminous prose it is honest, heart-breaking and raw. I think it is wonderful that Virago have brought out this new edition of this novel – I urge everyone to read it.

janet frame

Read Full Post »