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Virtual Book Club IV

14 May 2014

Janet Frame wrote some thirteen novels, of which Faces in the Water was the second. She also wrote three autobiographies. Faces in the Water is emphatically not of their number but its central topic, ‘the season of peril’ – during which ‘Istina Mavet’ is institutionalised and repeatedly at risk of a lobotomy – was also the central drama of Frame’s early life for her literary fans. The story that became famous was that Frame’s scheduled operation was cancelled at the last minute when the staff at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum discovered her first book of short stories was about to win an award.

There is no Seacliff in Faces in the Water, though Istina Mavet’s journey is bookended by stays at a ‘Cliffhaven’ asylum, with a brief and disastrous return home in the middle. Istina’s ambiguous relationship with institutionalisation is reflected in the shift of names from the famous ‘Seacliff’ of Frame’s much-publicised experience to the apparently oxymoronic ‘cliff-haven’. Whereas ‘Seacliff’ suggests a perilous balance on the edge, ‘Cliffhaven’ is both a place of ‘peril’ and a ‘haven’ of safety.

‘Safety’ is, in fact, like ‘peril’, a thread that runs through the book. The hallucinatory first chapter, written like a prose-poem, opens ‘They have said that we owe allegiance to Safety’. Elsewhere, Istina Mavet describes the elaborate safety precautions that accompany electro-shock therapy, though she equates the practical power of woolen socks and sweet tea with the ritualistic repetition of a poem learnt at school. She doesn’t get to finish the poem before unconsciousness sets in, though snatches of similar poems, songs and childhood rhymes recur throughout the book. They are, like their narrator and her companions, fragmented and unattributed throughout, just as near the beginning, Istina recalls a ‘Mrs Hogg’ asking her:

…what is the difference between geography, electricity, cold feed, a child born without wits and sitting drooling inside a red wooden engine in a concrete yard, and the lament of Guiderius and Aviragus, Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages…

‘I could not tell her the difference’ Istina says, though ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ is the first of many Shakespeare allusions running through the novel, explained by Istina’s original job as an English teacher. The song appears in Cymbeline as the funeral song for the disguised Imogen, who is not in fact dead, and it is also the song Winnie and Willie keep trying to recall in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Happy Days, which was first performed the year Faces in the Water came out, 1961.

Beckett’s protagonists spend the whole of Happy Days buried to the waist and neck in sand, and similar suggestions of burials that aren’t burials and dead people who aren’t dead – but could be – colour Frame’s conception of the asylum in Faces in the Water. Cliffhaven is a place haunted by people the nurses describe as “to all intents and purposes dead”. These are people like Louise, whom Istina sees one night after ‘the newly discovered operation’ looking like the others who have had the same operation ‘their faces pale and damp and the pupils of their eyes large and dark as if filled with ink’.

It is these people we come to recognise as the ‘faces in the water’ of the novel’s title. In a central passage, Istina describes Brenda, another veteren of the ‘new operation’, playing the piano in a haunting reminder of her previous vocation as a musician. ‘Listening to her, one experienced a deep uneasiness as of having avoided an urgent responsibility, like someone who, walking at night along the banks of a stream, catches a glimpse in the water of a white face or a moving limb, and turns quickly away’.

The metaphor of drowning in the water looks back to Ophelia, original figure of literary madness and another Shakespearean heroine, though Istina asserts elsewhere that the speech of madness is ‘seldom the easy Opheliana recited like the pages of a seed catalogue’. Indeed, the description of mental ill health throughout the novel is grossly, viscerally bodily: characters defecate on the floor and wet themselves constantly (this is one of the effects of ‘the new operation’), and many of the female patients are described as embarrassingly sexualized. In that sense, it’s a novel that won’t allow its readers to look away from the ‘faces in the water’ and similarly its rambling grammar and list-like sentence structures nod at those disrupted ‘Opheliac’ speech patterns. This is the writing that brought Frame out of Seacliff.

Next month Development Officer, Sarah Chaney, will be sharing her thoughts on Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway'.  We'll be publishing this review in the week commencing 16 June.  In the meantime please share your thoughts about 'Faces in the Water' below.

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