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Faces in the Water by Janet Frame | VMC40


As part of our Virago Modern Classics 40th anniversary celebrations, the Virago team have each chosen a favourite title from the #VMC40 series. Each month, we will introduce the book and share with you why we love it.

This October our #VMC40 book of the month is Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

Faces in the Water

By Janet Frame


“Much of living is an attempt to preserve oneself by annexing and occupying others.”


Janet Frame spent eight years in mental institutions in New Zealand following a suicide attempt, receiving hundreds of electroshock treatments and narrowly escaping a lobotomy. When her doctor suggested that she write about her traumatic experiences in order to free herself from them, this powerful, poignant novel came into being.

Faces in the Water is a gripping account of life in a psychiatric institution, as told by the fictional Istina Mavet. The power relationships between doctors, nurses and their patients are illustrated beautifully, showing a regime that is at once well-meaning, terrifying and humiliating. Drawing on her own life experiences has allowed the author to create a visceral, utterly unique reading experience – a story of strength and, ultimately, survival. While the subject matter is heavy – the stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories create a sense of fear that seeps from the page – Frame pulls the reader along, making Faces in the Water impossible to put down.

This is not a novel to be read lightly, but one which delves inside the human mind, which will leave you asking questions. And wanting to read her entire backlist.

Kate Doran, Deputy Marketing Director 


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“‘For your own good’ is a persuasive argument that will eventually make man agree to his own destruction.”

Further reading:

Gifted, a novel by New Zealand academic and former Frame biographer Patrick Evans. Janet Frame has also written three autobiographies, in addition to numerous works of fiction and poetry.

Further viewing:

An Angel at My Table, directed by Jane Campion


“At times I murmured the token phrase to the doctor, ‘When can I go home?’ knowing that home was the place where I least desired to be. There they would watch me for signs of abnormality, like ferrets around a rabbit burrow waiting for the rabbit to appear.”



“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.”