Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

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Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dawn Powell
Reviewed by Dawn Powell
Summary: A modern classic (it was first published in 1961), Faces in the Water is a gripping and unflinching portrait of life in a psychiatric unit — providing a powerful insight into mental illness.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084616

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Istina Mavet, for reasons we never find out, has been committed to a psychiatric hospital. Throughout the book, she flits back and forth from being well enough to be released to being considered so ill that she is beyond hope. At one point, she is even threatened with a lobotomy — an operation that could turn her into a vegetable. But despite her supposed lack of sanity, she makes keen observations of her fellow patients (who are vaguely reminiscent of the people you might find in your typical office) and the unsympathetic hospital staff that are meant to care for her.

A quick read of the introduction (by Hilary Mantel) reveals that the author had a very similar experience to Istina. She, too, was committed to a mental asylum for nearly a decade and was also nearly forced to undergo brain surgery (in her case, she was saved when she won an award for her literary talents). Therefore, it would be easy to conclude that the book is autobiographical. But, to get too focused on similarities between Frame and Istina would be a mistake. Not just because Frame herself always denied that Istina was her in disguise but also because it misses the point. Faces in the Water is about recognising how misunderstood mental illness was in the 1950s (and probably still is).

Istina is merely the vessel that allows you to do that. All of the patients, including Istina, are treated as naughty children who just need to learn to behave (although ECT is their punishment rather than a denial of pocket money). The crude attempts at understanding patients fall laughably short. One doctor, who is admittedly quite progressive compared with other staff members, decides that card evenings should be introduced because mental patients are people and may like occasionally to engage in the activities of people. He makes no efforts to get an insight into why the patients have the emotional troubles that they do.

Frame's skill is that she makes her points clear without ramming it down your throat. Istina's description of the fear she feels at the prospect of being treated with ECT and the lengths she goes to avoid being sent for treatment leaves with you no doubt about what Frame thinks about ECT. But, she does not insist that you think the same; she simply presents the facts and lets you draw your own conclusions — she shows rather than tells.

In fact, Frame puts across her issues so well that it is to her detriment. Faces in the Water is a beautifully written novel but you do not always realise this fact. You are too busy thinking about what Frame is saying to notice her artistry with words. I think that this is a mark of the true writer. I find that if you are permanently aware of how good the writing is, it is normally because the author is showing off and this ultimately distracts you from the story and its characters.

I have to admit that although this is a book I greatly admired, it is not one I loved. The story is unrelentingly bleak and Istina rarely (if ever) shows signs of hoping for a better life, which is fairly understandable given her situation. But for me to love a book, I need to feel inspired by it and I definitely did not feel inspired after reading this. So, while it's a book I will recommend, it is not one I will treasure.

I'd like to thank the publishers of Faces in the water for sending a copy to the bookbag

For a look at the treatment of depression in the twenty-first centruy we can recommend Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton.

Buy Faces in the Water by Janet Frame at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Faces in the Water by Janet Frame at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Faces in the Water by Janet Frame at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Faces in the Water by Janet Frame at Amazon.com.


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