Faces in the Water: Blurring the lines of reality

Faces in the Water, Janet Frame, 1961

  • New Zealand, #5
  • Kindle, £3.99 from Amazon.co.uk
  • Read April 2015
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Recommended for: Anyone who’s ever felt their grip on reality might be slipping

California, 2005

Faces in the Water is a fictionalized account of the eight years that Janet Frame spent institutionalized after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Hilary Mantel, in her rather obsequious introduction to my edition, emphasizes that Frame “insisted that Istina Mavet, the novel’s central character, was not herself; she was more than herself.” However, the similarities between the timelines of the novel and Frame’s life are striking. Like the author, Istina is training to be a teacher when she attempts suicide (in the beautiful, dense, dream-like first chapter Istina says, “I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy; I slept a sleep of good work and conduct excellent.”). Both spend years in various mental institutions (Istina does three stints in two different hospitals, while Frame was a patient of at least three). And like Frame, Istina is “treated” with countless electric shocks and threatened with lobotomy when her condition does not seem to be improving (Incredibly, Frame’s scheduled lobotomy was cancelled when her first collection of stories won a national prize; later she was deemed never to have suffered from schizophrenia in the first place). This was Frame’s second novel, and her second young, female, institutionalized protagonist; though it would apparently annoy her through the course of her career, her subject matter does invite comparison with her life. I don’t know that there’s much point in dissecting out history from fiction (though Frame did publish three volumes of autobiography, so if you were really interested you could probably take a stab at it). The point is, her fiction is born from painful, deeply personal experience, and she does not stint in cannibalizing her own life to create a powerful work of literature.

California, 2005

The picture presented is of a cruel and hazardous world, where patients are seen as inhuman and electric shock is used as a punishment for unruly behavior. It’s rather unsurprising to anyone who’s read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Kesey could have used Faces as source material–but the idea that it is based on real experience makes it even more horrific (and Frame claimed that in fact she toned it down to make it more believable). And the punitive nurses in Frame’s story aren’t evil like Nurse Ratchet; they’re only tired and jaded and overworked to the point where they can hardly afford to see their patients as individual humans anymore. It’s chilling to think that as recently as the 1950s the mentally ill were being stigmatized, dehumanized, and locked away and forgotten about.

If the plot is reminiscent of Cuckoo’s Nest, the writing reminded me more of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The prose is beautiful and wildly original and eminently subjective. Frame successfully draws us into Istina’s mind so that her point of view becomes the reader’s, and her reactions (though pathologized by the book’s other characters) seem the only rational ones in a hysterical and threatening world. Where Plath’s Esther felt as if she were enclosed in a bell jar, Istina expresses such complete isolation and withdrawal that she seems to be submerged in water, watching the refracted world from below. It is gorgeous and personal and ultimately it doesn’t matter what’s fiction and what’s biography: this novel illuminates a universal truth.

California, 2005

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