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Faces in the Water

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  642 ratings  ·  61 reviews
Narrated entirely from the viewpoint of a young insane woman, this novel provides a moving description of the horrific conditions in two New Zealand mental institutions.
Paperback, 254 pages
Published 1985 by The Women's Press (first published 1961)
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The author of this book was saved from a lobotomy by her first book winning a prestigious literary prize.

Now, tell me, what do you say to that? What do you focus on first? The 'lobotomy', perhaps, one of the most popularly conceived intersections between the unknown and the brutal, a 'how could we' combined with a 'the best medicine has to offer' during a certain period of time. The 'author', the oh, I know what this will be about now, I have her numbered down for my interval of reading dep
Oct 17, 2012 Mariel rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: if you'd only held the cup while I poured
Recommended to Mariel by: Emilie
Choose to be changed. - Rainer Maria Rilke

I don't know how old Istina is. There is a young woman in one of her two institutional traps that had been there since she was twelve. Old women die in their sleep, flesh and spirit rotting from the disease of there was no where else to put you. Istina's Aunt gives her a pink bag that symbolizes to her that she'll never leave. Somewhere to put all of the prized possessions she'll ever have. I was reminded of the lifers in the mental asylums from Charles
Janet Frame is clearly a writer who closely follows the advice of Mark Twain -- "write what you know." And what she intimately knows is the mental splitting from reality, electroshock treatments, psychiatric institutions and those who fill them. Following a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt during her early years as a teacher, Ms. Frame was committed to the New Zealand hospital system where she remained for the next eight years shuttling from ward to ward and institution to institution.

Amanda L
A deeply personal account from a clearly reliable but intensely disturbed and isolated narrator, Istina Mavet, as she is bounced around among a slew of anonymous psychological holding tanks. The title comes from a quiet remark about being out of body and looking down on your own face underwater, and feeling that it could be any face, as a metaphor for no longer recognizing your own self or even your own humanness. This theme seems to resonate from the distinction of the 'mental patients' from th ...more
Faces in the Water is technicolour. Language and imagery mercury fluid so as to immerse the reader into the compelling experience of Istina Mavet- incarcerated in a mental institution in New Zealand in the 1950’s for 8 years (as had the author Janet Frame).
The book is geographically chartered by the senses, Izmet moves through the wards over her eight years as determined by the psychiatrists. The observation wards with brightly coloured décor – and one’s own clothes- the public face of the hosp
Everybody who works with mentally ill patients should read Janet Frame's largely autobiographical novel depicting the experiences of a sensitive woman incarcerated in an involuntary psychiatric unit for over a decade. Though "Faces in the Water" takes place in 1950s New Zealand, I was struck by the overpowering sense that it could just as easily have taken place in the present-day U.S. Yes, some of the technical details of psychiatric management protocols have changed since the 1950s (e.g., lobo ...more
Jun 09, 2008 Leslie rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Leslie by: jim
Shelves: read-in-2008
It this novel, we follow Istina through various wards of a 1960s mental asylum. Istina treats the wards like levels in a video game. Patients get to the "next level" (the topmost level = self-sufficiency/returning home) based on the merit points they accrue; they lose points by acting out or getting moved to wards with dirtier day rooms. Many patients opt out of the whole video-game system and call the wards home. Some have reached zombie-status from multiple rounds of EST. Others yearn for live ...more
Faces in the Water is amazing, so good I woke up early this morning to finish it. The writing is just fantastic, I got chills. Heartbreaking too. Frame takes care to state at the start of the book that this is a work of fiction, yet it has so many parallels with the second volume of her autobiography, An Angel at my Table, that I can't help but think of it as semi-autobiographical. The conditions that our mentally ill were subjected to only two generations ago were horrific. It makes my heart hu ...more
Laura J. W.
From the very first page I was in awe of Janet Frame's writing style...I kept saying: "Wow, this is fantastic!"...who would' a thought that a book about a woman's painful experience spent in an insane asylum would be so beautiful? I savored every page, and found it hard to put down. So what did I do as soon as I finished it...I re-read chapter 1! Yup, I'll definitely read it again!
Quite a depressing look at mental hospitals in the days when lobotomy and insulin shock therapy were in vogue.
My first real experience with severe mental illness came on my psychology internship at Beth Israel Hospital in NYC in 1993-94. In the inpatient world of New York in the 1990s, most treatment for severe mental illnesses such as major depression, bipoloar disorder, and schizophrenia was delivered via short (a few days to a few weeks) inpatient stays featuring medication, group therapy and brief individual or family sessions followed by regular outpatient care in the form of ongoing medication and ...more
A thoughtful account of mental illness and it's treatment in mid-twentieth century New Zealand. Whilst a disclaimer at the beginning states that this is a work of fiction, the book reads as a documentary of an only-too-real personal experience. In fact the story appears to be a thinly disguised account of the author's own experiences, and it feels that way. With no real "story" as such, and little explanation of the exact nature of the narrators illness (or, indeed, the cause of her final discha ...more
Christian Engler
Janet Frame's Faces in the Water belongs on the same shelf with such contemporary books: The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But in its grim earnestness and somber naturalism of reality, it is a biographical novel that is on an echelon all by itself.
Janet Frame, one of New Zealand's most redoubtable and esteemed novelists and twice a contender for the Noble Prize in Literature, used facets of her own (earlier) melancholic life for the creation of the novel's protagonist, Estina Mav
Cyril Wong
Insanity is a tough topic to describe and depict, yet easy--often too easy--to dramatise. The problem with this novel is also what is simultaneously so breathtaking about it: insights into the deranged mind are not so different from aspects of the artistic imagination and the author is full of revelations about the troubles (inspired from her own life) faced by her semi-fictionalised mental patient. The revelations bite hard into the facade of normal human behaviour and its veneer of hypocrisies ...more
Ronald Wise
A fictional account of an institutionalized mental health patient, which is illuminating, often disturbing, and sometimes inspirational. The book begins with electroshock therapy as a standard activity for this patient. She is shuffled from one ward to another, where the other patients and the rules vary widely, and is given no explanation for these changes. Reading this book brought back some vivid recollections of when I was working in the mental health field in the late 1970s and early 1980s. ...more
Whist reading this I had to constantly remind myself I was reading about mental institutions and not penal institutions. What came over most strongly was the sense of helplessness/hoplessness of everyone: patients, nurses, doctors, in the face of mental illness on such a vast scale, and no suitable or satisfactory treatments. Thank God times have changed.

Frame's literary genius is apparent from the get go. She has an inventive writing style and way with words. Janet Frame is truly a unique writer.

Taking the taboo subject of institutionalization (ca. 1950s) and personalizing the characters and setting, without being grotesquely voyeuristic, is courageous. Frame's real life experiences are apparent, thus giving Istina a voice of authenticity. The progressive build up of Istina finding her healthy self is inspiring, especially given the very bleak
Eva Weaver
One of the most haunting books I have read. Janet Frame's language is so incredibly sharp, original and lucid that language itself becomes her clearest tool to hit back at a system that had her labelled mad. I am humbled by this book, her keen powers of observation and finding ways to express the inexpressible pain of being dumped, labelled, having all freedom stripped away.
It is a deeply moving and human book , with many near heart stopping sentences, both for the content and her language.
Rebecca Shala
This is an amazing "fictional" and poetic account of the character's time at two mental hospitals. Frame herself spent over 8 years misdiagnosed with schizophrenia in New Zealand asylums before being released on the grounds of becoming an award winning author (right before her scheduled lobotomy...).Her writing explores the "the foreign ideas the glass beads of fantasy the bent hairpins of unreason embedded in our minds." Absolutely brilliant!
Istina est internée dans un hôpital psychiatrique. Elle nous décrit les autres patients, les activités, ses chutes…

Janet Frame, je l’ai découverte avec le biopic de Jane Campion Un ange à ma table. J’avais envie de découvrir cette auteur via ses poèmes et je la rencontre avec une fiction proche de ce qu’elle a vécu.

Istina est une jeune femme suffisamment lucide pour analyser le lieu et les patients de l’hôpital. Elle nous dépeint cet univers d’un regard tendre et compatissant. Grâce à elle, on s
Moving and frightening! A chilling, heart-rending semi-autobiographical novel of one young women's vacillating tenure in mental institutions in New Zealand. Beautifully written and sad and thought-provoking. An important text in the canon of mental illness narratives.
È il primo romanzo di Janet Frame che leggo e sono rimasta completamente affascinata dalla sua scrittura a tratti fluida a tratti quasi 'compressa', ma sempre ricca di immagini incredibili. La storia di Istina (ovvero Janet), giovane internata in manicomio, trascina il lettore e gli permette di sperimentare 'dall'interno' il tipo di trattamento che veniva riservato ai cosiddetti malati mentali quando la lobotomia era ancora considerata una soluzione ottimale per trattare questo tipo di malattie. ...more
heavy-going but un-put-downable.
I found this book a very interesting read, albeit one which could be hard at times to get through. Janet Frame paints a very vivid, rich and provocative world, where the lives and despairs of mental patients in 1960s New Zealand intertwine with those of the carers, nurses, doctors and occupational therapists who take care of them. I thought Frame brought a very unique view to the mental illness experience. Her writing is very rich in metaphor, at times seeming like loose stream-of-consciousness, ...more
Katie Grainger
Faces in the Water is a fascinating account of madness seen through the eyes of Istina. We join Istina in Cliffhaven hospital as she begins treatment for an unknown mental illness. As the book progresses we follow her as she receives "care" in the hospital, mostly consisting of electric shock therapy. The environment and the therapy do not improve Istina’s condition and it spirals out of control until she is moved from ward to ward- in each one receiving little or no treatment to help her condit ...more
Lull Wain
Istina Mavet gawędzi do czytelnika o szpitalach psychiatrycznych. Szpitale psychiatryczne w jej gawędzie są złe. Lekarze niespecjalnie przejmują się pacjentami. Pacjenci robią siusiu i kupę pod siebie, rzucają jedzeniem i są brudni.
Istina Mavet mogłaby być reporterem, stającym pomiędzy publicznością a ścianą i odpalającym rzutnik. Obraz byłby następujący: szpital jest duży i ma mnóstwo oddziałów, i łatwo stoczyć się po oddziałowej drabinie na sam dół, zaś wspinanie się z powrotem na górę nie je

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.

Some strange and vibrant prose evoking a hallucinatory experience:

"I was a teacher. The headmaster followed me home, he divided his face and body into three in order to threaten me with triple peril, so that three headmasters followed me, one on each side and one at my heels. Once or twice I turned timidly and said, Would you like a star for good conduct?"

and resulting delusional behaviour:

"I sat all night in my room, cutting out stars from sheets of gold paper, pasting the stars on the wall an
Questo libro fa pensare a un fiume in pianura. Le parole fluiscono con la stessa dinamica dell’acqua. Si aprono disponendosi in tutta l’ampiezza del letto, precise, non una fuori posto, non una che interrompa l’armonia di quello scorrere che è la narrazione. È di una bellezza drammatica e insostenibile, disturbante.
Impossibile non considerare la bravura della traduttrice (Lidia Perria) nel riconsegnarci, perfetta, la sensibilità dell’autrice, l’atmosfera di crescente angoscia, di paura, umiliazi
Kristen Wilhelm
It was interesting. At times it was hard to follow the narrator because she would slip from stream of consciousness and the narrator was in an asylum so her sanity was in question. I did not think that is was a bad book and it was certainly easier to read then the Bell Jar or Sybil. However, like most books for classes, it was something that I had to read and that shaped my understanding of it. Read it if you want to find out what I am talking about.
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The fate befalling the young woman who wanted "to be a poet" has been well documented. Desperately unhappy because of family tragedies and finding herself trapped in the wrong vocation (as a schoolteacher) her only escape appeared to be in submission to society's judgement of her as abnormal. She spent four and a half years out of eight years, incarcerated in mental hospitals. The story of her alm ...more
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“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, refusing to help or to search for help. We all see the faces in the water. We smother our memory of them, even our belief in their reality, and become calm people of the world; or we can neither forget or help them. Sometimes by a trick of circumstances or dream or a hostile neighborhood of light we see our own face.” 12 likes
“Much of living is an attempt to preserve oneself by annexing and occupying others.” 10 likes
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