Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

facesFaces in the Water, Janet Frame, 1961, Virago Press 2009

Much like Joanne Greenberg and Sylvia Plath, Janet Frame wrote a semi-autobiographical novel of her time in a mental institution and handles the subject with just as much sensitivity and skill.

The life of Janet Frame is important to consider while reading this book because of the very narrow escape she made from being able to write at all. She was in a mental hospital and scheduled for lobotomy when her book of short stories won a New Zealand literary prize. She was released and travelled throughout Europe and New Zealand and published five more books.

The protagonist Istina Mavet is not Janet Frame but through her Frame illustrates her experiences in a psychiatric ward in a disturbing and poetic book. We witness the journey of Istina from civilised institutions where patients are herded on random mornings for electroconvulsive therapy, “each one equivalent in fear to an execution” to the wards where mental patients are seen as lost causes by the doctors and the nurses treat them like animals including one scene where nurses throw lollipops on the floor to watch patients scrabble and fight for them; and then straitjacket them when they do.

Frame’s use of language and the way she views the world despite it’s ugliness is beautiful. The following passage is desperately bleak yet the author manages to paint it in startling lovely imagery:

I dreamed of the world because it seemed the accepted thing to do, because I could not bear to face the thought that not all prisoners dream of freedom; the prospect of the world terrified me: a morass of despair violence death with a thin layer of glass spread upon the surface where Love, a tiny crab with pincers and rainbow shell, walked delicately ever sideways but getting nowhere…And the people: giant patchworks of colour with limbs missing and parts of their mind snipped off to fit them into the outline of the free pattern.

We know that Frame escaped from the mental institution that ended up making her illness worse but we don’t know if Istina did. That is not the point of the book however, she is a vessel which Frame uses to show us the world she once lived in. Knowing her life story means we finish the book with slightest feeling of hope that even if we don’t know what happened to Istina, we know Janet Frame did not end with her life stolen away.

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