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One From the Archive: ‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame

First published in 2017.

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.

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Books Set in New Zealand

Reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful The Colour has made me realise quite how few books I have read which are set in New Zealand.  This is clearly an oversight on my part; New Zealand has always been very high on my travel list, and I am fascinated by the culture there.  Katherine Mansfield, born in Wellington, is one of my favourite all-time authors, and I also very much enjoy the work of Janet Frame, Lloyd Jones, and Eleanor Catton.  I clearly need more works set in New Zealand on my to-read pile, and thus have made a list of tomes which I am very much looking forward to picking up in the next year or so.

5271891. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (I’m hoping to read this for the 1944 Club in October)
A haunting love story set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century.  William, whose hypnotic, masculine presence made two women adore him… of Marianne, moody, passionate, brilliant, by whom William was both fascinated and repelled… of Marguerite, Marianne’s beautiful sister whom William wanted with all his heart.  They had both loved him for years. Now they were waiting for him to return from his journeys and claim his bride.

 

2. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

3. The Bone People by Keri Hulme 460635
In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge. Winner of both a Booker Prize and Pegasus Prize for Literature, The Bone People is a work of unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity.

 

4. An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
This autobiography traces Janet Frame’s childhood in a poor but intellectually intense family, life as a student, years of incarceration in mental hospitals and eventual entry into the saving world of writers.

 

237252755. The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns
Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.  Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.

 

6. The Piano by Jane Campion
In the award-winning film The Piano, writer/director Jane Campion created a story so original and powerful it fascinated millions of moviegoers. This novel stands independent of the film, exploring the mysteries of Ada’s muteness, the secret of her daughter’s conception, the reason for her strange marriage and the past lives of Baines and Stewart.

 

7. A Respectable Girl by Fleur Beale 3768628
It is 1859 in the raw township of New Plymouth where Hannah Carstairs walks between two worlds. She finds that both her worlds are changing. First there are the disturbing hints about her dead mother’s past. Then, the tensions between the Maori tribes and the settlers boil over into war.

 

8. A Land of Two Halves by Joe Bennett
After 10 years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Other than his dogs, what was it about these two small islands on the edge of the world that had kept him—an otherwise restless traveller—for really much longer than they seemed to deserve? Bennett thought he’d better pack his bag and find out. Hitching around both the intriguingly named North and South Islands, with an eye for oddity and a taste for conversation, Bennett began to remind himself of the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite works set in, or about, New Zealand?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame *****

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.

Purchase from The Book Depository