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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.

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One From the Archive: ‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’ by Andrew Solomon ****

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and is also the recipient of twelve other awards.  It has been called, among other things, ‘a monumental book’ (Stephen Pinker), ‘a landmark, revolutionary book’ (Jennifer Egan), and ‘the most amazing book I’ve ever read’ (Curtis Sittenfield).

Throughout Far from the Tree, Solomon, a lecturer of psychiatry at Cornell University, draws upon interviews with over three hundred families, and studies those with such conditions as dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, disorders which occur within the autism spectrum, children born of rape and those convicted of crime.  He also examines the way in which prodigies can be ‘surprisingly similar to those with disabilities’.  In Far from the Tree, he aims to discover what happens when children are radically different to their parents, and in doing so, he ‘celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us’.

In his introduction, Solomon states that ‘parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity’.  He goes on to set out ‘vertical identities’, in which ‘most children share at least some traits with their parents’, and ‘horizontal identities’, where ‘someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’.  ‘All offspring are startling to their parents,’ Solomon writes, and ‘these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme’.

Solomon’s interest in writing such a study began in 1993, when he investigated Deaf culture for the New York Times, and he couples this with the fact that he himself, a homosexual and a sufferer of dyslexia, is ‘different’.  Coming to terms with the things which set him apart from others has made him want to identify a wealth of differences, and how what sets them apart from the masses often serves to make the child in question more treasured.  He is a firm believer that ‘difference unites us’, and that ‘to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state’.  The book has been split into ten sections which relate to a certain disability or trait which goes against the ‘norm’.  It begins with a chapter entitled ‘Son’, and ends with ‘Father’.

Andrew Solomon (right) with his husband John Harbich and their son, George

Throughout, Solomon writes so coherently, and makes his book an eminently readable one.  His research is immaculate and far-reaching, and he weaves a wealth of facts into his narrative.  The entirety of Far from the Tree has been crafted in such a way that it is not in the least overwhelming, even to readers who have not studied psychology in any depth before.  The case studies within the volume, which are often very touching, are interspersed alongside the history of each condition, and Solomon writes of such diverse subjects as Alexander Graham Bell’s leading of the oralist movement in the nineteenth century, which encouraged deaf people to use their voices; the way in which genetic information has been discovered over time; the origin of the genius; and the history of abortion within the United States.  Somehow, the tone of his prose is both sad and hopeful.

Solomon examines every possible way in which the child’s differences in each case have impacted upon the lives of themselves and their families, from those parents who embrace the child and do everything within their power to allow it to blossom as far as possible, to those whose parents tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and caused deep-rooted problems as a result.  He has also spoken to other researchers and specialists in each field, whose ideas he then builds upon.  It is heartwarming to see that most of those whom Solomon speaks to have made the best of themselves despite – or, in some cases, because of – their disability or difference.  He examines those who have paved the way for change for others – Clinton Brown III, for example, a dwarf, who addressed the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to tell them that it was incredibly difficult for disabled people to access the city’s subway system.

Far from the Tree is a far-reaching and fascinating study upon humanity, and upon those issues which affect many of us.  It is intelligent and is certainly an important contribution to the field of child psychology.

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One From the Archive: ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen ****

First published in April 2014.

I am probably one of the few not to have seen the film version of Girl, Interrupted, and was drawn to it instead by the quote which compares it favourably to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on the back page.  I have coveted this book for years, and finally managed to find a copy in Fopp on my most recent trip to London. 

Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work.  It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression.  She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles.  The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released.

I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced.  Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information.  One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written.  Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts.  There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.

Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully.  As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things.  We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week.  We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’.  She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to.  Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.

Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean.  Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story.  Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes Girl, Interrupted a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.

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‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’ by Andrew Solomon ****

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and is also the recipient of twelve other awards.  It has been called, among other things, ‘a monumental book’ (Stephen Pinker), ‘a landmark, revolutionary book’ (Jennifer Egan), and ‘the most amazing book I’ve ever read’ (Curtis Sittenfield).

‘Far from the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon (Vintage)

Throughout Far from the Tree, Solomon, a lecturer of psychiatry at Cornell University, draws upon interviews with over three hundred families, and studies those with such conditions as dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, disorders which occur within the autism spectrum, children born of rape and those convicted of crime.  He also examines the way in which prodigies can be ‘surprisingly similar to those with disabilities’.  In Far from the Tree, he aims to discover what happens when children are radically different to their parents, and in doing so, he ‘celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us’.

In his introduction, Solomon states that ‘parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity’.  He goes on to set out ‘vertical identities’, in which ‘most children share at least some traits with their parents’, and ‘horizontal identities’, where ‘someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’.  ‘All offspring are startling to their parents,’ Solomon writes, and ‘these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme’.

Solomon’s interest in writing such a study began in 1993, when he investigated Deaf culture for the New York Times, and he couples this with the fact that he himself, a homosexual and a sufferer of dyslexia, is ‘different’.  Coming to terms with the things which set him apart from others has made him want to identify a wealth of differences, and how what sets them apart from the masses often serves to make the child in question more treasured.  He is a firm believer that ‘difference unites us’, and that ‘to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state’.  The book has been split into ten sections which relate to a certain disability or trait which goes against the ‘norm’.  It begins with a chapter entitled ‘Son’, and ends with ‘Father’.

Andrew Solomon (right) with his husband John Harbich and their son, George

Throughout, Solomon writes so coherently, and makes his book an eminently readable one.  His research is immaculate and far-reaching, and he weaves a wealth of facts into his narrative.  The entirety of Far from the Tree has been crafted in such a way that it is not in the least overwhelming, even to readers who have not studied psychology in any depth before.  The case studies within the volume, which are often very touching, are interspersed alongside the history of each condition, and Solomon writes of such diverse subjects as Alexander Graham Bell’s leading of the oralist movement in the nineteenth century, which encouraged deaf people to use their voices; the way in which genetic information has been discovered over time; the origin of the genius; and the history of abortion within the United States.  Somehow, the tone of his prose is both sad and hopeful.

Solomon examines every possible way in which the child’s differences in each case have impacted upon the lives of themselves and their families, from those parents who embrace the child and do everything within their power to allow it to blossom as far as possible, to those whose parents tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and caused deep-rooted problems as a result.  He has also spoken to other researchers and specialists in each field, whose ideas he then builds upon.  It is heartwarming to see that most of those whom Solomon speaks to have made the best of themselves despite – or, in some cases, because of – their disability or difference.  He examines those who have paved the way for change for others – Clinton Brown III, for example, a dwarf, who addressed the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to tell them that it was incredibly difficult for disabled people to access the city’s subway system.

Far from the Tree is a far-reaching and fascinating study upon humanity, and upon those issues which affect many of us.  It is intelligent and is certainly an important contribution to the field of child psychology.

Purchase from the Book Depository