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 Mavet, a young and misunderstood, if not a bit shy, woman - a character who emblematized the author herself.
The novel is told in a tight, structured first person documentary narrative. The book is so wonderfully crafted, and the psychological distance and adroitness in observation of the narrator is so unfeigned, it is a marvel to behold. A reader would believe that the character of Estina was a fly on the wall observing the goings-on of its environment, but that would quickly change as he/she is snapped back into reality when some of the other characters come into play: the nurses Sister Bridge, Matron Glass, Sister Honey, Nurse Clarke to Dr. Steward and Dr. Portman, to the sundry number of incurable female patients Maudie, Carol, Bertha, Violet, down the gamut.
The incarceration of Estina and those believed to be her mentally 'damaged' like takes place in two mental institutions: Cliffhaven and Treecroft. The two hospitals are essentially divided into wards, each safeguard representing the level of madness that correlates to the tormented patient. With Estina, her placement varies from Ward One, Two or Four. While progressing through the book, the reader is never truly exposed to Estina's actions but rather her inner thoughts. And the writing that represents the narration of her ordeal is crisp, cutting and luminous. From E.S.T. (electroshock treatment) to the dreaded lobotomy, Estina goes through it all, narrowly missing having a 'brain readjustment.' The horror of the latter part, I think, is perfectly elucidated on pages 213 to 216:
"We don't like to see you here," he said. "There's an operation which changes the personality and reduces the tension, and we decided it would be best for you to have the operation."
"With your personality changed," she said, "no one will dream you were what you were. So many patients have had this operation or are going to have it. I know one woman who was here for twenty years and now -what do you think?-she's selling hats in one of the fashion stores in town. And she used to be in seclusion, like you."
"I don't think I could sell hats," I said doubtfully.
"You've no idea what you'll be able to do. You'll be out of the hospital in no time instead of spending your life here as otherwise you'll have to do, my lady, and you'll get a good job in a shop or perhaps an office, and you'll never regret having had a lobotomy."
As the Estina's story winds down and the climax of horror lessons (I'll let you guess what happens), the story has a very exquisite and refined ending, a completeness, a totality, like a Charles Dickens novel. There is a definative statement that is elicied from this work: compassion, understanding, valuing life no matter how unpleasant it may be. For that alone and what Janet Frame endured, she should receive a Nobel.
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