Book Review, Fiction

Book Review: Faces in the Water by Janet Frame


Brutal. Honest. Evocative. Echoing loneliness. That’s how I felt about Janet Frame’s novel, Faces in the Water.  The prose offers a poetic, lyrical, haunting experience that makes this book worth reading. However, Istina, the narrator, offers so little in the way of information about herself that it’s hard to get beyond the disturbing images in this book.

The narrator of the novel is involuntarily incarcerated in a mental hospital in 1950s New Zealand. We aren’t told exactly why she’s there; it’s clear from the prose that she’s disturbed, but why? I think that was my biggest problem with the book. The author never gives us insight into why Istina is in the hospital in the first place, or why the doctors think she is insane. She is painfully shy and sensitive, but beyond that, the question remains: was she insane when she was committed, or did the brutal experiences inside the hospital drive her insane?

It’s a stunning question, isn’t it? Istina begins in an observation ward that doesn’t seem so bad, but she keeps getting shuffled around to various wards with increasingly disturbed patients. I lost track after a while of which ward she was in – the good one or the bad one? The one with the people who were clearly psychotic, or the one with what we would today called depressed people? It was hard sometimes to understand what was going on and why.

The best parts of the book came at the end, when Istina’s relationship with a nurse, Sister Bridge, leads her into a desperate cry for attention.  Sister Bridge is a mother figure to Istina, and the catalyst for her eventual return to normalcy, which seems to happen despite the hospital, not because of it. I got the feeling that Istina had some kind of relationship issues with her parents, especially her mother, and that her crushing loneliness and isolation had a lot to do with her mental illness. She is so socially inept, so awkward, that she almost cannot make lasting friendships with anyone, and that leads to yet more loneliness and pain.

At the end of the book, it is literature that saves Istina. She asks to visit the roving library van and gets lost in the books. Ironically, the hospital chaplain “catches” her in the van, and instead of recognizing her interest in literature as a possible sign of health and recovery, scolds and “tells” on her to the psychiatrists and nurses. Luckily, the doctors recognize her interest as a way to reach her, and even Dr. Portman, who we learn to dislike, comes to her aid, encouraging her to choose books for the patients and for her own reading. This leads her to wholeness again, and her eventual release from the hospital.

The book is disturbing in many ways. The treatment of the patients is horrific. They are openly mocked by the nursing staff, probably as a defensive mechanism by the nurses against the weight of the ever-present, incurable sickness in the wards. The hospital staff themselves is grossly over burdened, with a doctor-patient ratio of 100 or more patients to one doctor or nurse. Can you imagine? It’s amazing they are even kept fed and housed at that rate. No wonder none of them received anything but the most crude treatment in those days.

I read Janet Frame’s autobiography before I read her novels, and despite her protests that this novel is not “autobiographic”, it has so many parallels to her autobiography that it’s impossible not to say the novel IS in fact detailed closely on her life. The only different I could find is that Frame herself was saved from a lobotomy by winning a major literary prize with her first published book, a deus ex machina that you couldn’t make up if you tried. In the book, Istina begs the kindly Dr. Trace not to schedule her for the lobotomy, and it is her interest in literature, not her writing in and of itself, that keeps her from the surgeon’s table.  I imagine that Frame based the nurses, doctors, and fellow patients on her own experiences living in mental hospitals for over eight years, and that she probably rolled some of the details up into her fiction, merging several people into one to tell a more coherent story. Telling stories directly from life is difficult; truth is always stranger than believable fiction.

All in all, this is a masterful book. It was moving in ways I didn’t expect. Yes, I’m disappointed that I couldn’t figure out the why’s – why Istina was in the hospital, why she was considered ill, why she couldn’t reach out more coherently to the staff to prove her sanity.  But if I can set aside my whys, all I am left is the whats, and that alone makes this book worth reading.

4 out of 5 stars. The image and link in the first paragraph will take you to Amazon, where I purchased my copy. If you use my link to buy the book, I receive a little commission, which does not affect your prize. Thanks.

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