My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn

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Reviewed by Simon

The premise for My Katherine Mansfield Project is admittedly rather niche. If one is not already a fan of Kirsty Gunn, then one had better be a fan of Katherine Mansfield (so one might think). This long essay is in essence an homage to Mansfield and her homeland and her legacy – yet, at the same time, it can be enjoyed simply as one author admiring and experiencing communion with another, while admiring and experiencing communion with a beautiful place.

Luckily for me, there was no need to introduce caveats. I am a devotee of Katherine Mansfield, the short story writer from New Zealand who spent much of her life elsewhere, and died far too young, completing (I believe) her best work in the final years of her life. (I put ‘I believe’ in there, as I had a bit of a contretemps with Gunn while discussing this in person – but that it for another day.)

Gunn is herself from New Zealand, from Wellington, and yet has lived for many years in the UK. While making this pilgrimage, to stay where Mansfield was from, she was living Mansfield’s life in reverse.

So begins this writing, this book of thoughts, ideas – something I have been thinking of for a long time as a kind of journal or workbook, calling it ‘My Katherine Mansfield Project’ – that came together as a reality when I returned to live, for a winter, in Wellington, the place where I was born and grew up, and where Katherine Mansfield, the writer to whom always I have felt most connected, was also from and left behind her.

She describes the book very accurately here; it is one which consists of thoughts and ideas. Usually ‘lack of structure’ would be a criticism, but it feels oddly appropriate here, meandering from memory to memoir to analysis to biography, ducking and weaving among all these and more, putting together a patchwork of moments in the Katherine Mansfield Project. That might be visiting Mansfield’s birthplace, or wondering how her (Gunn’s) daughters are finding the experience, or reading her (again, Gunn’s) fiction aloud at a conference. The essay meanders and whirlpools, and it works.

Zig-zags really do change the way you see a place. I have been thinking about that all this time while I have been working on this book, about here and there, now and then, home and away – and all the spaces in between. I have been living in a part of Wellington I know very well, where I spent so much of my time as a girl, in the Botanic Gardens and cafes, roaming those same streets Katherine Mansfield know, passing many of the same houses with their gardens and trees.

The most successful sections of My Katherine Mansfield Project are those closest to memoir: where Gunn discusses the peculiar experience of visiting her home and Mansfield’s, and the relationships between place, memory, and art. When Gunn introduces her own fiction, including several full-length stories, it jars a tiny bit. The stories are good, but interrupt the flow of the essay a bit – and, though they are good, Katherine Mansfield is one of the all-time greats in the short story world. To put your own fiction in direct comparison with hers (and how could we help comparing them, when Mansfield is front and centre in this essay) can only do Gunn’s writing a disservice. Of course she isn’t as good as Mansfield, because almost nobody is, and thus it is clear that the magic of Mansfield’s greatest stories is missing from Gunn’s writing. Again, that is hardly a criticism – it’s like comparing mortals with immortals – but it might have been wisest to lose the comfort blanket of fiction and stay, instead, with the non-fiction essay format that otherwise works so well.

First published in 2014 in New Zealand, the UK edition comes courtesy of Notting Hill Editions – which, of course, means that it is an exquisitely beautiful little hardback. The quotation for the cover is as good a conclusion and summation as any:

‘One has left a version of oneself at the place of departure and it waits for us at the point of return – but she is not me when I get there.’

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and would love to make his own Katherine Mansfield pilgrimage one day.

Kirsty Gunn, My Katherine Mansfield Project (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2015). 978-1910749043, 139pp., hardback.

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