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cofWhen Molly Keane wrote her final novel; Loving and Giving, she was well into her eighties. It had been over sixty years since her first novel was published under her pseudonym of M J Farrell.

In her introduction to this modern vmc edition (sorry virago, but I don’t like the cover at all) Michelle Roberts says Loving and Giving is her best novel. Other readers may argue that, Good Behaviour (another later novel) could also be in the running for that accolade. As Roberts says, the novel shows Keane’s maturity, describing it as ‘less superficial, less obviously funny than most of her previous fiction.’

Loving and Giving is a superb novel, Keane’s writing is as good as ever, she recreates a recognisable time and place without sentimentality. I always feel her characters could have been – and perhaps were, taken from life.

The novel opens in 1914, Nicandra is eight years old, life is good at the family’s grand Irish home; Deer Forest. Maman is beautiful, Dada a small, silent man is only really happy around his stables, horses and dogs. Aunt Tossie – Maman’s widowed sister is big bosomed and kind, and looks, she knows, quite wonderful in her weeds. This is a place where everyone has his or her place, above stairs the family live comfortably, below stairs or in the stables, the maids, butler, grooms and steward have a different kind of life. Nicandra runs between the stables, and the house with a freedom few modern children ever experience.

“Then, as light follows darkness, she saw Maman coming down the drive. She wore her lilac coat and skirt, braided with deeper lilac; the skirt, widened at the hem and floated out over thin boots, the tidy laces criss-crossing on shadowy ankles – there was something playful in Maman’s way of walking, something jaunty that swayed her hips, and made her straw hat tilt up on her frizzled curls…From the shrubbery side of the avenue fresh wet heads of lilac bowed over her, heavy in their prime flowering. She lifted her arm to catch at a branch and, as she held it down, rainwater fell on her face – her eyes were shut; it was as if she was drinking the scent of lilac.”

Nicandra simply worships her mother, enjoying the intoxicating scent of her hand cream, taking pleasure in small everyday acts she knows will please her mother. Every morning Nicandra runs into her mother’s bedroom when the morning tea is delivered. Life seems very nearly perfect, until Maman does something too terrible to be discussed, and thereafter, disappears from Nicandra’s life.

loving and givingWhen love is suddenly ripped away, it leaves a hollowness so deep, perhaps it can never be filled. Nicandra takes the confusion and distress of her mother’s disappearance, out on Silly Billy – the son of the lodge keeper – who has some kind of unspecified learning difficulties. It is the one act of spite of her young life – a moment she forgets all about. As she grows up into a lovely young woman she wraps those around her in love and kindness.

As a young woman starting out in society, Nicandra is looking around for what love could possibly be, what it might mean for her. The heady excitement of a hunt ball, her best friend; beautiful heiress Lal helping her dress, the two young ladies are accompanied by Nicandra’s faithful old friend Robert and his friend Andrew. Here finally, is love.

“Before she undressed, Nicandra pulled back the window curtains, cold as glass in her hands, and stood between them to look out at the changed world. Even the moon was not the same. It hung lower in the sky, nearer, more golden, since now she loved and was loved.”

Nicandra’s heart is ripe for hurt and betrayal, Andrew is happiest when at the races, he sometimes seems to have more in common with their mutual friend Lal.

Meanwhile at Deer Forest, not too far from where Nicandra lives with her husband, Dada and Aunt Tossie have fallen into a comfortable, companionship. The two old friends rub along pretty well, understanding one another’s little ways. Around the time of the Second World War, Deer Forest is falling into disrepair there isn’t the money there once was, and the family home may need to be sold. In preparation, Aunt Tossie moves into a caravan in the grounds with her whisky hidden in the ‘po’ cupboard and her stuffed parrot, attended to faithfully and a little jealously by Silly Billy – now called William.

I can’t say too much more about this novel and certainly not about the ending, but suffice to say, there is the most spectacular and unexpected conclusion to this novel. My jaw dropped.

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mde

Joanna Godden is such a wonderful novel, a VMC title which demonstrates perfectly why the VMC imprint has been so important. In this novel, Sheila Kaye-Smith gives voice to an extraordinary woman, who pulls valiantly against the conventions of her community. Joanna Godden is a very real woman, in her the author has created a character who is strong, flawed, loving and firmly wedded to the Sussex marshes where she lives.

As the novel opens it is 1897, it is the day of Joanna Godden’s father’s funeral. Joanna is twenty-three, her younger sister Ellen; just ten. Everybody in the nearby village or on the neighbouring farms think they know exactly what Joanna will be do now. Her father’s farm of Little Ansdore has been left to Joanna entirely – and someone will need to run it. It seems obvious to everyone that Joanna will marry, she’s a handsome young woman, and her father’s farm makes her a good catch. As, Joanna’s good friend Arthur Alce has been trying (and failing) to court her for years it seems the perfect solution. However, Joanna has other ideas, she has no immediate plans to marry – and sadly for Arthur, Joanna makes it clear she won’t marry him, and more importantly she intends to run her father’s farm herself, she is full of ideas, passionate about the land. Joanna defies convention and raises more than a few eyebrows – and not all her ideas are successful.

“She forgot her distrust of the night air in all her misery of throbbing head and heart, and flung back the casement, so that the soft marsh wind came in, with rain upon it, and her tears were mingled with the tears of night. ‘Oh God!’ she moaned to herself – ‘why didn’t you make me a man?””

 

She works hard to make the farm a success – increasing its worth – and putting money in the bank. She invites plenty of comment with her smart, eye-catching costumes and newly painted cart. The men gather in the nearby hostelry and discuss all the latest news from Little Ansdore – they tell their wives when they get home – but Joanna rather thrives on the attention and quite enjoys thinking about everyone discussing her.

As well as running her farm, Joanna must also raise her sister Ellen. She’s not above clipping her round the ear, indulging in a sisterly screaming match or hauling the shrieking ten-year old under her arm and carting her off in front of a startled tea guests. Though as Ellen begins to grow, Joanna wants more for her, to make a lady of her, and now that she has the money – she decides to send Ellen away to school. The Ellen who returns to Joanna during the holidays is a changed girl – and in time the differences between Joanna and her little sister begin to tell.

In matters of the heart Joanna judges poorly sometimes, her heart very much ruling her head. When she first takes over the farm, she employs a ‘looker’ the man she employs is physically the kind of man she finds attractive. It is unthinkable that a farm owner would pursue a relationship with her ‘looker’ and Joanna doesn’t really intend to – but as Socknersh is bad at his job, Joanna’s preference is noted and talked about. Joanna nearly makes a fool of herself.

“Over the eastern rim of the Marsh the moon had risen, a red, lightless disk, while the sun, red and lightless too, hung in the west above Rye Hill. The sun and the moon looked at each other across the marsh, and midway between them, in the spell of their flushed, haunted glow, stood Socknersh, big and stooping, like some lonely beast of the earth and night…. A strange fear touched Joanna – she tottered, and his arm came out to save her…”

Joanna will fall in love for real, her enormous appetite for life making her throw herself whole heartedly into every life experience. But with everything she does, Joanna’s traditionalism, religion and love of the land drives her forward.

joannagoddenThe years pass, Ellen makes some terrible choices that really test Joanna. Joanna knows sadness, loss and great achievement – she never stops being a favourite topic of local conversation. There comes a day when Joanna, older, but possibly no wiser – acts against her own character, she remains unconventional making decisions for herself that are right for her – no matter what anyone else thinks.

Joanna Godden was one of those books I was sad to finish – a strong sense of place and one of the most heroic country heroines I have ever read about. This was the first novel I have read by Sheila Kaye-Smith so I am looking to reading Susan Spray – by the same author that I have tbr.

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writers as readers3

This gorgeous collection was gifted to me from Virago as part of their #VMC40 celebrations, and very grateful I am to have it. Writers as Readers contains a myriad of fascinating voices, writers talking about other writers.

With an introduction by Donna Coonan; Editorial director, Virago Modern Classics, this collection is a glorious anthology of VMC introductions from the past forty years. Forty of them, naturally. Some of these essays I had read before – it was no hardship to read them again, often years after I had first encountered them, others I hadn’t, either I hadn’t read the books they discussed, or I had read earlier or later editions. Shamefully, I didn’t always used to read introductions, I would find them too spoilery, for a number of years now though, I have taken to reading introductions after the novel – a practice I should have undertaken years earlier. In her introduction, Donna Coonan explains how the Virago Modern Classics redrew the literary map, many of these works had been out of print for years, and why giving those women writers a voice was so important.

“A platform that values the female experience as equal to that of the male is crucial; storytelling is central to what it is to be human, and giving a voice to generations of important but neglected women writers benefits everyone. History is incomplete without them, and readers miss out on the pleasure of discovering their female literary heritage.”

This is a rather difficult book to review – there is so much in it that it is difficult to know what to talk about. Here, there is affection, spirited defence, and true admiration from one writer to another – some tell of their first encounters with a particular work, and the impact it had upon them and their own writing. These personal testimonials are wonderfully readable, intelligent and perceptive, as they discuss some of the greatest titles that VMC have reissued over the last forty years.

There are so many pieces I could pick out for special mention. Mark Bostridge discusses Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, how for years she has attempted again and again to write about her experiences as a VAD nurse, and the personal terrible loses she endured. It’s extraordinary success upon publication took the author by surprise. It is an extraordinary work, powerful in it’s descriptions of nursing and war, it also a book about loss, and how that loss affects a life and a writer.

Anita Desai writes with obvious affection about Rumer Godden, primarily about her novella The River – (such a glorious little book) as well as some of her other India set novels. She describes Godden’s life in India, the drab years she spent in England, before going back and shows how these experiences shaped her writing.

“…The River was born: she had discovered how to capture time, space and experience in exquisite miniature, no more than a dewdrop reflecting light.”

Zadie Smith recalls how her mother forced Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God into her fourteen-year-old hands. At fourteen Zadie hadn’t thought she wanted to read it – refusing to choose books for socio-cultural reasons. She had refused to like The Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye. She was hooked however from the first paragraph, as I was when I read it – I was a lot older than fourteen though. Zora Neale Hurston ended her life penniless, living in obscurity. Of Hurston Zadie Smith says…

“Better to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: she is my sister and I love her.”

Hilary Mantel writes passionately about Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel – I personally only realised its utter brilliance on my second reading of it. Mantel claims that she became dangerously close to writing novels like those of Taylor’s fictional authoress Angelica Deverell. In this novel Mantel asserts, Elizabeth Taylor shows us writers as monsters. She certainly does it is a wonderful character study as well as a brilliantly compelling novel.

Elizabeth Taylor also writes her own piece – about setting the scene as a writer. She describes precisely how she came to write the setting of A View of the Harbour – one of several Taylor novels I want to re-read.

There really are far too many pieces in this collection to talk about individually – and there were so many pieces that stood out to me; Marian Keyes writing about Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen on Antonia White, Jilly Cooper joyfully about E M Delafield’s The Provincial Lady. There is a lot to love here – forty exceptional pieces to be precise.

As a reader, if you already know these novels then these essays are wonderful memory joggers for old favourites, reminding us why we loved these books to begin with, perhaps giving us a nudge toward re-reading them. I have also been introduced to a few books that I have yet to read, but I have so far only bought one on the strength of it. This may not be the kind of book to read straight through one piece after another after another, it can be read like that of course. I dipped in and out of it for something like three weeks, until I had read the lot. Either way, this collection becomes a wonderful resource to some of the most important voices in the VMC list.

VMC40

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cof

I am finding that I rather enjoy having a tbr spreadsheet, it doesn’t stop me buying/acquiring books and adding to it, but it has until now stopped me going mad. Don’t let the moderately modest book pile in the picture fool you – it is only a part of the story.

So, in January when I began doing A Century of Books which I am happily obsessed by – I had 280 books on my spreadsheet once I had added in all those pesky kindle books. I am currently reading book 51 of the year – which is ok for me at this point in the year – however … as of a few minutes ago when I updated it – the spreadsheet stands at 261 (there are several books I am eyeing up to cull – random kindle buys particularly but they still stand for now). Oopsy, so I have been clearly buying books. Now you can all see what a hopeless book buyer I am, and there was me blithely thinking I had done better this year.

As for A Century of Books –I do love this challenge and can imagine doing it again too. I had said I was trying to do it in two years – though completing it in a year would be amazing and I am now wondering if I can manage it. However, I think I am reading too many duplicates (with several more lined up that I have to get to) that I suspect I will get to December and find myself frustratingly close but just out of reach. Currently I have got 43 years ticked off, as long as I don’t duplicate too many years I could just do it – but I think it will be tight.

cof

So, the books above are some of my recent acquisitions – four Persephone books are ordered and winging their way to me, I assume they will arrive Tuesday because of the bank holiday. Did I need four more Persephone books right now? No, to be frank I didn’t, I already have five tbr, but what has need ever had to do with it? There is a  Mini Persephone readathon coming up next weekend, hosted by Jessie, but I may well extend that to most of next week, and several of my Persephone tbr – are annoying duplicate years in my ACOB (I know, I did say I was obsessed!).

My new lovelies are:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron – which I am looking forward to – I have heard very good reports of it. These VMC40 editions are so pretty.

The Collected stories by Grace Paley (huge admission, I arrived home with this to discover I already had a copy. I hadn’t realised because the other book had been missed off my spreadsheet and was physically so different it didn’t ring a bell).

The Takeover by Muriel Spark, the Spark I will be reading in June for Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The book underneath that is the latest arrival from the Asymptote book club, book six for me. It looks brilliant, but not everyone who subscribes will have received it yet – so I can’t reveal it. Some of you may remember I expressed doubts about book five when it arrived. Well I finished it a few days ago, and really enjoyed it – so sometimes first impressions are entirely wrong.

The book at the bottom of the pile was what I spent a left-over book voucher on, The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall. A Birmingham set book by a Birmingham author, I haven’t actually read that many books by Clare Morrall, and not all her books are set in Birmingham. Having loved Astonishing Splashes of Colour, I was so disappointed by The Man Who Disappeared that it put me off her other novels, until I read When the Floods Came, which I thought was fantastic.

The four Persephone books I have ordered are: Consequences by E M Delafield (1919) The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme (1965), The Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (1918) and Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski (1948). Those are added to my Persephone page (you knew I had a Persephone page, didn’t you?) – where I keep track of what I own, and I now have over 100. I shall probably try and read two back to back this next week – I have nine to choose from. This pleases me.

So, the numbers may not be moving by much, but I am having fun! Is anyone else joining in the mini Persephone readathon?

minipersephone readalong

 

 

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ellen foster

Kaye Gibbons is not a writer I have read before, but last year I spotted two of her books in a second-hand book shop and took a chance. Ellen Foster; was her first novel and it tells the poignant story of a precocious eleven-year-old. Hers, is an unforgettable voice, and through her eyes we witness a world of broken family, neglect and poverty, as she experiences casual violence and fear, things no child her age should live with.

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.

The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he’d be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something’s the matter with my daddy.”

Ellen is the child of a sick mother and a drunk, abusive father. Ellen is around nine as the novel opens, though the story is told from a distance of a couple of years later, when Ellen’s life has changed, and she is living with her ‘new mama’. The family she was born into, live in the rural south, it is somewhere around the late seventies – though I often felt it could have easily been twenty years earlier. There is still a lot of unofficial white/black segregation in the community. Though Ellen’s father has a group of black, drinking buddies, Ellen has been brought up believing she mustn’t stay overnight at her friend Starletta’s house or eat or drink anything while there. Starletta’s family are poor but kind, and it becomes a place where Ellen seeks refuge, a place where she can feel safe.

“I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think. You just let the motion in your head wear you out. Never think about it. You just make a bigger mess that way.”

Ellen’s mother is fragile, she cannot cope with the world in which she lives, and so one day as Ellen lays resting next to her she overdoses. With her mother dead, Ellen finds it wiser to stay as far away from her father as she can. Deciding she doesn’t want to live with him any longer she packs a bag and calls her Aunt Betsy and invites herself to stay. Betsy is one of Ellen’s mother’s sisters. At the end of a happy weekend with Betsy, it is revealed that Betsy had only expected her niece to stay for the weekend – not for good! Ellen is on her own again, forced to return to her father.

When the school spot bruises on Ellen’s body, she embarks on a series of temporary solutions. First, she stays with one of her school teachers, Julia and her husband Roy. Here Ellen feels cared for although she doesn’t always understand their way of life. Her time with Julia is short – and her grandmother – her ‘mama’s mama’ is awarded custody.

Mama’s Mama is a truly awful woman, mean and desperately cruel – she hates Ellen’s father and takes her hatred out on Ellen in the most dreadful ways. Ellen is tough little cookie, when she is put to work in the cotton fields under the scorching summer sun, she gets on with it, making friends with her fellow workers. When her vile grandmother falls ill, she takes care of her, the best way this poor, almost broken child can.

“She died in spite of me.
I tried to make her keep breathing and she stopped I blew air in her like I should have. She did not live but at least I did not slip into a dream beside her. I just stood by the bed and looked at her dead with her face pleasant now to trick Jesus. I said to her the score is two to one now. I might have my mama’s soul to worry over but you’ve got my daddy’s and your own. The score is two to one but I win.
I stood over her hoping she was the last dead person I knew for a while.”

Next to take Ellen in, is Aunt Nadine, her mother’s other sister – who Betsy has been fighting with since the funeral. Life at Nadine’s house is not happy either. Nadine’s daughter Dora is a spoilt, spiteful little madame who instantly makes Ellen feel out of place. On Christmas day things come to a head, and Ellen walks out – heading for the house of the lady with the nice calm, well behaved children who she had spotted at church. She had heard the woman referred to as the Foster woman who will take anyone in. So, Ellen knocks at her door on Christmas day – and is taken in. Ellen has misunderstood the Foster part – assuming it is her new mama’s name she starts calling herself Ellen Foster.

Ellen finds life at her new mama’s house to suit her just right, there’s a pony to ride and a large family who are immediately welcoming. From the way this novel is structured we know from the beginning that Ellen has a new life – a life she is happy in finally. I think it is that knowledge that makes this novel easier to read, as the reader knows that we won’t be left feeling hopeless at the end. In fact, there is a lot that is joyful and life affirming in how Ellen emerges at the end of this slight novel, and I had high hopes for her going forward. She reconnects with her friend Starletta, making the necessary readjustments to her racial attitudes.

The other novel I have by Kaye Gibbons is Sights Unseen – which I believe has a similarly rural setting. Based upon this powerful little novel, I have reason to look forward to it.

kaye gibbons

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delta wedding

Delta Wedding was my first book read during May. I chose it to tick off 1945 of my ACOB – and I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I know lots of people really like Eudora Welty’s writing, but my only previous experience of her writing was not very successful. In 2012 I began reading her later novel Losing Battles, (1970) a book of something like 400 pages, I read about half of it before giving up in frustration. I had really wanted to like it but just couldn’t get to grips with it. I felt I needed to give Eudora Welty another try and this much earlier Welty novel was a charity shop find last year. Good news, I enjoyed Delta Wedding very much indeed, so much in fact that I might revisit Losing Battles one of these days.

Right from the start I was drawn into the story by the exceptional writing and evocative sense of place. It is a novel which deserves slow, considered reading, and while there isn’t a huge amount of plot – the story of a large, Mississippi family, in the weeks around the wedding of their daughter to the plantation overseer, is quite wonderful.

“People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths.”

In September 1923 nine-year-old Laura McRaven travels on the Yellow Dog train from Jackson Mississippi to the family plantation of Shellmound on the Mississippi delta. Laura’s mother has died, and at Shellmound she is enveloped by the enormous Fairchild family – her mother’s family. The cast of characters is huge, and it took me a while to get to grips with who was who. I found some names confusing, a child with the same name as his father and several older aunts called by their husbands’ names; ie Aunt Jim Allen – and Aunt Robbie married to Uncle George – it doesn’t take much to confuse me.

As Laura arrives the family are beginning to gather for the wedding of Dabney the prettiest of the Fairchild children. She is still only seventeen and about to marry an older man, Troy Flavin, a man from the mountains, the family overseer and there is the feeling that deep down the Fairchilds don’t fully approve. Though everyone treats Dabney with all the deference due to a beautiful young bride to be, giving her advice, and gently teasing.

“‘Don’t ever let this husband of yours, whoever he is, know you can cook, Dabney Fairchild, or you’ll spend the rest of your life in the kitchen. That’s the first thing I want to tell you.’”

The day to day events in the lives of this large, proud Southern family are portrayed with humour and affection. Children race around the house and grounds, drawing, poor motherless Laura into their games and their world, while the adults concern themselves with wedding preparations and family gossip. Aunt Ellen is the mother of the bride, mother to eight and expecting again, married to Uncle Battle she is a warm loving presence. Uncle George, the firm family favourite is due to arrive soon from Memphis with his wife Robbie – though when he finally turns up, he is alone, Robbie having apparently left him. This is just about as shocking a thing as any of the Fairchilds have ever heard, that she should leave George! George of course can do no wrong, though we see him as a little less than perfect.

As with all families, stories are told and retold, some quickly taking on an almost legendary status. Like the recent story; told to Laura and then repeated later by the adults – of George walking the railway trestle with young Maureen, as his wife watched nearby. Maureen’s foot got caught in the rail just as the train was coming, George stayed to free the child’s foot as the train raced toward them. Tragedy was averted, but the story of such a close call is hard to resist.

Dabney, the child bride is in love – after her marriage she will move into another family house on the plantation, Marmion. She has her head in the clouds, appearing at table just whenever she feels like it – Laura notices. She is girlish and romantic but despite her youth she knows what she wants and the life she wants is just within reach. The old maiden aunts gift her a small, treasured night light, the object seems to be symbolic for Laura and the aunts and perhaps even for Dabney too.

“Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples’ lives should be shattered now.”

 

Capturing a time and place perfectly Delta Wedding is the story of long, slow Southern days, a complicated loving family, and ultimately a celebration of a way of life. So very pleased I gave Eudora Welty another chance.

eudora welty

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cof

(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

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