I do not dream of Sussex downs
or quaint old England’s
quaint old towns—
I think of what may yet be seen
in Johnsonville or Geraldine.
‘Home Thoughts’ by Denis Glover, 1936.
During the summer of my first year at Victoria University, I worked alongside my father in the lupin-covered landscape of Ōtūrehua. Home to Brian Turner and little else (population: twenty-seven), the Central Otago ‘so-called middle of nowhere’[i] town had its heyday in the late nineteenth century. Not keen on bringing the populace up to twenty-nine, my father and I rented a cottage in the nearby gold-rush town of Naseby, a sleepy place with one dairy, one museum and a curling rink. It was a quiet summer.
On a rare day off, I wandered this small town. One of my favourite buildings was the Naseby Athenaeum. Built as a Church in 1865, the red corrugated-iron building morphed into a library only five years later due to the gold-miners’ demands for literature. Today the little library has limited opening hours, but instead an open alcove containing a scattering of books on a single shelf. A cardboard sign told me these books were free to a ‘good home’. Delighted, I welcomed some of these wild, homeless books into my life and became the proud owner of a slightly dishevelled copy of Faces in the Water, a 2005 reprint of the 1961 novel.
To my own shame, I had never previously read Janet Frame’s novels or poetry, despite growing up in her ‘kingdom by the sea’[ii] of Ōamaru. To make the matter worse, when I was nine I lived in the neighbouring house next to Frame’s childhood home (so I can hardly claim the excuse of ignorance). It was the year before Frame’s house became a heritage site, so my tainted memory recalls 56 Eden Street in a time of dire disrepair. I remember a square backyard with twisted trees and overgrown shrubs; a crooked wooden fence and a cracked concrete path; a house the colour of grated lemon. I remember the lone palm tree that protruded through the knee-length grass to wave its shadowed spikes against my bedroom curtains. My sisters and I played in the same backyard field as Frame and her siblings and likewise ‘discovered every climbable place in the hedges and trees . . . accumulating our treasure of new experiences’.[iii]
Like Frame, I attended Waitaki Girls’ High School (where the Janet Frame Memorial Room consisted of a cramped research area of the library). Yet, as an amorphous entity, ‘New Zealand literature’ remained sparse and disparate to me during my school years. I read the occasional Owen Marshall short story, ‘borrowed’ my mother’s Denniston Rose, lived off anything by Elizabeth Knox and latched onto the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, but it took me until I left Ōamaru to shake off the type of ‘domestic shame’ stigma strangely associated with New Zealand writing.
While reading Faces in the Water for the first time, I sat on the cottage porch in Naseby overlooking a dense pine forest. It was an unforgettable experience (in more ways than one, as no internet or cell service for three months taught me a lot about myself). I read Faces in the Water right through from the beginning to the end – and then from the beginning again, so that I could savour it through the working week, dissecting it vivid line by vivid line. Although the plot and even the characters are now shrouded in the mist of forgetfulness, I still feel the visceral emotion Faces in the Water evoked in me; I still remember the beautiful and terrifying imagery that inspired horror, fear, surprise and hope.
It was a book so excruciatingly honest that I was alarmed: it broke multiple ‘rules’ that I had been taught in high school – of grammar, of narrative, of structure – but was unflinching and unrepentant in doing so. A first-person stream-of-consciousness account where sentences could continue for paragraphs or pages without a full-stop, I was as caught up in the main character’s struggles as my own. ‘The prospect of the world terrified me’, Istina Mavet recounts.[iv] At that time of my life, it rather terrified me too.
Only one year out of high school, my nineteen-year-old self was still finding her feet in the so-called ‘real world’; the world of the ‘adult’. I was finished growing, but certainly not yet grown. It was a liminal stage. I had spent the year living away from all family and friends – having moved from Ōamaru to Wellington to attend university – and had been desperately homesick for my small-town life as I faced the social challenges of ‘the city’. So much so that, during the summer, I was still debating whether to continue with university. It was somewhat destabilising to go from the mentally demanding nature of tertiary study to working in an isolated Central Otago village. However, my own temporary confusion paled against the sufferings of Istina Mavet (of incredible likeness to Frame herself, despite the disclaimer to the contrary), as she battled against her mental illness and the harsh prejudices of 1930s New Zealand society.
Like the tiny towns of Ōtūrehua and Naseby, where tradition and farming ingenuity are still a way of life, Faces in the Water is a story about Istina’s triumph over adversity. It is a novel that follows Istina’s experience with mental illness and her incarceration in New Zealand psychiatric hospitals, where she struggles to be seen as human in an overwhelming sterile and inhumane environment. Faces in the Water juxtaposes the madness of fantasy alongside reality, so much so that the commonplace begins to appear absurd, while the abnormal grows increasingly closer to the truth of genuine experience. Frame is determined to make the reader catch glimpses of ‘the faces in the water’ belonging to the people that society ignores. Frame warns, ‘we can neither forget or help them. Sometimes by a trick of circumstances or dream or a hostile neighbourhood of light we see our own face’.[v] Frame’s exuding compassion for others, particularly for the suffering and abused, is primarily what draws me again and again to this novel.
Perhaps assisted by a quiet summer spent in an isolated landscape, the novel affected my outlook. No longer were the sloping hills of the Ida Valley – with their deep purples and blush shadows – innocent and beautiful, but they instead constantly exemplified Mansfield’s ‘curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque’.[vi] It was a novel of emotional turbulence that reflected, in a small way, my own. While grim and disturbing, Faces in the Water taught me about the value of emotional resilience, compassion, honesty and authenticity in literature. I valued, and still value, its exploration into the emotions that we cannot articulate.
Faces in the Water gave me the courage to follow my passion for writing and to change one of my university majors to English Literature, which ultimately led me – three years later – to pursue publishing. It is a novel about human suffering that exemplifies the triumph over that suffering. For me, Faces in the Water is now intractably tied to the stillness of a contemplative time spent in Naseby and Ōtūrehua; as my own story of growth, and that of Janet Frame’s, is tied to Ōamaru. I can only hope to be as brave, compassionate and authentic in my future career as Frame was in writing Faces in the Water. I am forever grateful that Faces in the Water showed me the beauty and honesty of what our New Zealand stories can achieve.
[i] Brian Turner. ‘As it Happens.’ The Spinoff, www.thespinoff.co.nz/featured/11-09-2015/poem-as-it-happens-by-brian-turner/. Accessed 17 October 2017.
[ii] Janet Frame. To the Is-land. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2000 (1983). 157.
[iii] Ibid., 43.
[iv] Janet Frame. Faces in the Water and The Edge of the Alphabet. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2005 (1961). 56.
[v] Ibid., 156.
[vi] Katherine Mansfield. Selected Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 13.
*Note: This piece was originally written as an application essay in answer to the question ‘which book has had the most impact on your life?’. Although I didn’t succeed in the application, I worked hard on this essay – so thought I would reformat it for publication on my new site.