Joanna FitzPatrick sent me “In Pursuit…” for review after she had read my interview with Kathleen Jones, the author of the recent, and very well-received biography Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller. “In Pursuit…” is a biographical novel rather than a biography, but it shares more in common with Kathleen Jones’ biography than its subject. One of the notable features of “The Storyteller” is its non-linear time sequence, and “In Pursuit…” uses the same technique, although the time sequence becomes linear as the novel goes on.
I ended up enjoying “In Pursuit…” a lot, but I got off to a slightly rocky start with it. Part of that was circumstantial: having read “The Storyteller” so recently, I had a hard time resisting the urge to rush off to it every few pages to check whether the two books matched. Once I told myself firmly that this was a novel and that I should read it as such, those worries disappeared.
The novel is set in England and Europe apart from the appropriately-named Prelude, which is set in New Zealand in 1908, when Katherine was 19. This was the part of the novel I had the most trouble with, because, as someone who lives in Wellington, aspects of these scenes didn’t quite ring true for me. I don’t believe Katherine Mansfield would have said, or thought, “I’ll go visit Julia” – that’s still regarded as an American construction here over 100 years later. And I don’t think – although I may be wrong – that KM would have been able to see from her house a ship leaving Wellington Harbour dwindling to a dot on the horizon.
(In saying this, I acknowledge that it is very difficult indeed for an author to get all the details right of a country she does not live in or regularly visit – though I didn’t notice any problems of this sort in “The Storyteller”. Also, I doubt these quibbles will mean anything to a reader who doesn’t live in New Zealand.)
The good news is that, as soon as the story moved overseas and forward in time, I started to enjoy it. Joanna FitzPatrick acknowledges the editors of Katherine Mansfield’s letters and diaries in her “Note on Sources”, and it’s clear that she has drawn on the letters in particular to flesh out a convincing portrait of Katherine and her circle.
I finished “The Storyteller” feeling considerable sympathy for both Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, but “In Pursuit…” is very much Katherine Mansfield’s story. More than anything else, she struck me as a woman who was born before her time: someone whose talents might have flourished for much longer in an era when antibiotics could have dealt to her ailments and her desire for independence might have been better appreciated.
So, especially if you are interested in literary history in general or Katherine Mansfield in particular, I recommend that you get hold of a copy of “In Pursuit…”.
P.S.: If you are interested in Katherine Mansfield, I also recommend that you check out the Katherine Mansfield Society, whose journal is currently calling for submissions for its forthcoming issue on “Katherine Mansfield and the Fantastic”.