The Story of My face, the first of Kathy Page’s novels to appear in Canada is now available again in a new edition from Biblioasis. “A marvellously well-crafted book, subtle and measured yet with the powerful tug of deep and dangerous water…” Sarah Waters.
The Story of My Face
“A marvellously well-crafted book, subtle and measured yet with the powerful tug of deep and dangerous water…” Sarah Waters.
The Story of My Face is the story of Natalie Baron, a teenage girl adrift in the world and looking for someone or something to latch on to. Her seemingly innocent involvement with Barbara Hern and her family, followers of an extreme protestant sect, leads to the revelation of a long-kept secret and a devastating series of events which change not only her face but also the course of her life. The Story of My Face is both a stunning psychological thriller and the archaeology of an accident which shaped a life.
The Story of my Face was long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize .
First published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2002, hbk, and Phoenix, 2003, pbk. Reissued by Biblioasis August 2019.
“One of the most compelling, unsettling novels I’ve read in ages, which should appeal to fans of classy thrillers and literary fiction alike.”
Sarah Waters (Author of Fingersmith) Independent On SundayBooks of the Year.
“Natalie’s character is a triumph.. It’s rare to find a book that can not only move and thrill but also asks fundamental questions about religious belief and the nature of virtue and sin.”
Good Books Guide
“Her [Page’s] writing, mostly in the present tense, is lit with an immediate sense of period, summoning images which are by turns softly painterly, sharply filmic or as murky as those first television images of the moon landing.”
Aisling Foster, TLS
“Incredibly evocative and haunting.. it keeps you reading, wanting to uncover both Natalie’s past and that of Tuomas Envall.”
Clare Heal, Sunday Express
“An elegantly compelling story of how a young girl’s obsession forever changes the lives of those around her.. a disciplined exploration of the complexity of human motivation and our need for redemption.”
Lynne Van Luven , Vancouver Sun
“.a most impressive achievement.”Jessica Mann, Daily Telegraph
“A compelling and unpredictable journey… beautifully written, rolls on at a rapid pace and delivers a satisfying punch at the end.”
Rebecca Caldwell, Globe and Mail.
“A moving, absorbing story.. Kathy Page writes beautifully.”
Helen Dunmore (author of A Spell of Winter)
The Story of My Face was both easy and difficult to write. It was easy in that Natalie, the main character/narrator, and her story, came to me very forcefully early on in the writing process. I didn’t have too many of the usual writerly doubts. Natalie, albeit vulnerable and needy, has a streak of steely determination at her core and it seemed she would make me complete the book even if I did not want to – so why not give in gracefully?
The difficult part was writing the book in scraps of time between having two babies. One of the many things that interested me during the writing of the book was to explore how our actions bear fruit over time. So part of The Story of My Face is set during Natalie’s adolescence, part when she is in her forties, and another section of the narrative takes place long before she was born. Dealing with a story that has three intimately connected plotlines in three different time zones is a challenge at the best of times, but much, much harder when you have had months of interrupted sleep. Once, out of sheer exhaustion, I found myself actually writing all over again a chapter I had already completed.
Natalie and her story insisted on research that stretched from the moon landing in 1969 to the religious culture of nineteenth century Finland. I was finally forced to learn how to use the internet. As well as that, I was able to travel for real: my then eighteen-month old daughter, my husband and I spent a couple of months courtesy the British Council in the north west of Finland. Becky was bundled up in warm and waterproof layers to dig the snow while I worked. All three of us were amazed by the milky, turquoise-green of the frozen sea.
Natalie is a neglected child looking to attach herself to a family. She is a figment of my imagination, not a real person. It was something of a shock, then, to meet her. The Story of My Face was complete and I was feeling both a faint sense of loss and a sudden surge or freedom. We were on our way back to the UK from abroad, and booked in for one night at an airport hotel with a small outdoor swimming pool. I had been in the water no more than a few moments when a girl in bathing suit, perhaps ten or eleven years old, emerged from one of the rooms bordering on the pool. Of course, I noticed immediately that she had Natalie’s wild red hair, her opaque, freckled complexion. She clearly couldn’t swim and launched herself awkwardly into the water, emerging right next to where I was standing.
‘Hello’ she said introducing herself, and then began with a seemingly unstoppable series of questions. ‘Where are you from? How long are you here? Are you married?’
I had the sad and uncanny feeling that she had been sitting in that shadowy room with its curtain shifting in the breeze, just waiting for someone like me to come along.
I’m thirteen. I’m wearing my school uniform and I carry a green duffle bag, first properly, with the cord across my chest, then in my hand, grazing the ground, then clasped with both arms to my midriff. It’s a spring afternoon and I’m walking in the Avenues, where bright green borders of grass separate the pavements and the roads. I’m walking and I’m noticing things – such as whether or not each house has a garage, and, if the doors are open, what make and year of vehicle is inside.
If someone were to ask me what my name is, I’d lie: ‘Mary’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Jane’. If they asked ‘What are you doing, wandering like this ?’ I’d say ‘I’ve taken a short cut and got lost’ or ‘I’ve accidentally dropped my key down a drain so I’m waiting for my mother to get back from work.’ Depending on what I thought of the person asking me, I might just say I ‘I’m only looking’ round’, and that would be the closest to the truth. But the ‘looking round’ is far too serious a thing to be dismissed with ‘only’, and in any case it is not so much looking round, or even looking for, as waiting.
I’ve been waiting for a long time, though I’ve forgotten that I’m doing it. I only ever knew for a brief, burning moment. I’m waiting for the right person and the right place. When those come together, fit like a key into a lock, then the other person will know it too.
I walk past carefully maintained gardens, their lawns glowing, their flowers heavy from last month’s rain. The houses are detached or semi-detached
and stand well back from the road. It’s hard to make much out. Here and there I glimpse the dark shapes of furniture, a picture picked out by a patch of falling light, a vase of flowers, a figure bustling from one room to the next. I fill in what I can’t see with imaginings and memories. I enumerate, as yet with a kind of detachment, the many ways in which this well-tended place is different from home. Sandra, my mother, is not one for chores, so long as her clothes and sheets and the bathroom basin are clean.
I hear voices and follow them across the road to a corner house. The front door is ajar. The garage doors are also open, and likewise that of a caravan parked in the driveway next to a Hillman Minx, quite new, dark green, with glittering chrome. Beside the vehicles, a bespectacled woman with long brown hair pulled back into a thick ponytail crouches on her haunches, trying to pick up something small from the gravelled driveway.
Standing, she reveals herself suddenly as very tall. She is wearing, unconventionally for the times, men’s blue dungarees over a pale, short-sleeved blouse, but even so, the curves of the body underneath show through. A short, bearded man stands close by, cutting a length of wood into sections.
‘Hello,’ the woman calls out to me. Her voice is breathy, almost over-enthusiastic, playful and solemn at the same time. She holds me in her gaze and walks over to the driveway gates: wrought iron painted a pale blue that matches the doors on the garage and the porch. Close up, I can see that she’s not wearing any make-up and that the skin on her face is dryish and faintly lined; she’s older than I thought at first, and while her eyebrows arch gracefully over the thick lenses of her glasses, her eyes, each differently magnified, swim rather sickeningly beneath them. Yet her mouth is wide, and as if it had taken over from the eyes, it is involved from moment to moment in a series of subtle evaluating and expressive movements. She is not beautiful, like Sandra, but then again, she is not plain like Aunt Sue. She is somewhere in between, or something else entirely.
‘Look,’ the woman says, holding out the soft inner side of her arm. A ladybird toils up the pale slope of skin. When it reaches the joint, she takes it on to the finger of the other hand. ‘My first this year,’ she says. ‘Do you like them?’ I’ve never thought of liking ladybirds or not.
She collects the insect on her finger again, and puts it this time on my arm. To begin with, there’s nothing, but by the time it is halfway up, I’m sure that I can feel it walk, each footfall separate.
‘What are you going to do with it?’ My throat’s tight. My voice comes out with an exaggerated rise at the end; the ladybird takes to the air in a heavy blur of wings.
‘How long have you been standing there?’ she asks in turn. ‘What’s your name?’ Her voice is smooth; it fills you up, like milk.
‘Natalie,’ I tell her: the truth. I hold the word up like an empty cup.
‘I’m Barbara.’ She unlatches the gate, opens it.
‘Do come in and see -’
Just before I step into their garden, I look quickly away from Barbara, across at the man, who has stopped working on his bit of wood and is looking right back at me. Then I glance up at the house beyond. There is a small, round window, right under the roof. The rows of tiles lift up and over it, like the skin of an eyelid, and someone else is up there, I’m sure, watching us.