FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

I’ve dipped into Katherine Mansfield’s stories over the years, and then recently worked my way through a huge batch of them, as well as listening to a number read by the actress Juliet Stevenson on Audible. I’m a fan of the modernist period, and I love Mansfield’s stories for their imagery, their symbolism, their devastating moments of epiphany and their focus on interiority and the timeless, shimmering moment – which sounds like something Mansfield would have said, and maybe I’ve accidently plagiarized her. I prefer her shorter short stories to her longer stories, some of which almost approach novella-length – particularly the evocative Prelude which was snapped up by Virginia Woolf’s press. Prelude, set in her native New Zealand, was intended as an elegy for her brother, who was killed in WWI. Perhaps my favourite stories, though, are the beautiful, ironic and explosive Bliss, which evokes and then shatters a world of complacent, upper middle-class domesticity, and the bleakly amusing The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Simultaneously, I read a short 2015 essay/memoir by New Zealand writer Kirsty Gunn that I picked up in the Oxfam book shop, entitled My Katherine Mansfield Project. I was intrigued by the implied premise, and attracted by the beautiful book jacket and binding by Notting Hill Editions. Gunn, like Mansfield, was a native of Wellington, New Zealand, who was drawn to the UK, but found herself drawn back to Wellington for a winter on an academic fellowship. Mansfield, too, effectively rejected New Zealand for the UK (and Germany, for a time), but during her final illness wrote yearningly of her homeland. Gunn’s book is a lyrical exploration of the themes of home and memory, and she encounters again places that would have been familiar to Mansfield. However, I didn’t really enjoy the book and found myself skimming the pages. I think, as I was reading Katherine Mansfield at the same time, for me it just threw into stark relief that fact that Gunn is a less proficient writer and her focus on “exile” seemed a bit overwrought given the smooth travel connections of the 21st century.

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