"Faces in the Water" by Janet Frame

Dear Reader,

In case you’re not aware who I’m talking about in the title, Janet Frame is one of New Zealand’s most prominent writers. Though as she put it, she is “New Zealand’s mot famous unread writer”. Or something like that. Basically, everyone seems to have heard of her but not nearly as many people have actually read her books. Which is a little sad, I think, but there is always the distance between the idea of the writer and the writers themselves and their works, and much of the time that distance is not bridged.

Having said that, I should also make my admission: this is my first time reading Frame. But having coming to know a little more about her life and works I can say that it won’t be my last. “Faces in the Water” is about a young New Zealand women’s experience in two mental institutions. It is not written in the traditional novel form with a linear plot. There is no distinct story in there, except that of a woman in a mental institution. It is simply her experiences as a mental patient, the repeated electro-shock therapy she’s forced to undergo, and the other staff and patients she encounters – all of whom seem to intermingle into one, and then fan out into thousands. 

The whole thing is very surreal to read – Frame’s writing is poetic, and you seem to be constantly moving in out of two realities: the reality that is yours, that you believe to be true, and then the reality that Frame creates – the other world, where all the cracks are revealed, cracks that already exist except we refuse to see them. As I said, it’s surreal. It wasn’t so much like reading, but like floating. Except that it wasn’t a pleasant floating at all. The whole book is tainted. It’s murky and dark and makes you acknowledge that murkiness and darkness of your own reality.

“Who are we, have we changed when we no longer claim as our treasure the stalk of grass in our hand or the chocolate paper but choose the human beings that we hope to hold tight in our heart? Are we sane then? have we progressed from illness when we do not care any more for the pink cretonne bag with its pattern of roses but begin to look for people that we may thread a drawstring round their neck and carry them back and forth inside ourselves, and not be willing to let them go not even in the night in sleep and ream?  … the whole world was a dream where people wake and work and love and sleep, free ebullient as Yo-yos until the cord retrieves them again to the central prison of their perplexity.” 

That last line struck me especially. Are we all attempting to waltz away from that central perplexity in the hopes of convincing ourselves that it’s not there? That we are here, instead, solid and real. And sane? Frame blurs the lines. The lines between real and unreal, between sanity and insanity, that we deem to be certain, absolute. But Frame denies us this certainty. She nudges us nearer to the cliff edge, closer and closer until every thing is so undistinct. Just as the events which she recounts that are so cyclical, similar situations with similar characters again and again and again, rolling along and morphing into one distorted lump of perplexity.

I did not like this book. I know that’s a bit abrupt, after waxing lyrical about Frame for the past few paragraphs, but when I turned the last page it wasn’t with a feeling of satisfaction. I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. I was uneasy. And maybe that’s what Frame intended. Maybe she wanted to create an inkling of that deep, terrible unease that she was surrounded by, just an inkling of it for the readers, just enough for us to start questioning our own certainties.

I loved the writing, and if I was judging solely on that, this would receive a much higher rating. But I honestly did not like this book. It’s like a friend that you admire, whose wisdom and clarity you respect and maybe even aspire to, but you cannot like them.

So 2.5 out of 5 faces in the water for me. (That was not even as remotely revolting in my head. But I think I’ll leave it as it is.)

  Lady Disdain


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