Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2011

In Pursuit, by Joanna Fitzpatrick

I was disappointed with this book.  I am a big fan of Katherine Mansfield, and when the author of In Pursuit offered me the opportunity to review this fictionalised bio-novel, I thought it would be a terrific chance to learn more about the life of an author who has always intrigued me.

Unfortunately, the publication values of this book are amateurish and it resembles a self-published book.  There are grateful acknowledgements to editors Steve Lewis and Jim Payne, but I think they have let the author down badly.   Her enthusiasm for her subject is engaging and although she has chosen to exclude aspects of Mansfield’s life  (i.e. Mansfield’s bisexuality and promiscuity in her bohemian period) she has created a fairly convincing portrait of the latter years of the writer’s life.  So it’s a real pity that the structural editing this book needs wasn’t done, and an even bigger pity that it is littered with grammatical and spelling mistakes.

There are awkward sentence constructions which disrupt the flow of the reading, and proofreading errors were irritating e.g. if Orage didn’t want to publisher her stories (p 56) and (only a couple of pages later) To make ends met they lived on homemade soup or share a greasy-pie from the corner shop (p 59).  On page 69 the plural noun ‘vermin’ has a singular indefinite article;  on page 93, LM (Ida Baker) exclaims, ‘Don’t tell me your cold’; and on page 120 Mansfield reveals that LM ‘moved in with my husband and I’ when she means ‘my husband and me’.  More assiduous editing could also have attended to punctuation lapses, and pruned some of the excessive detail.

More significantly I found the prelude utterly unconvincing and it almost put me off reading the rest of the story.  It’s supposed to be episodes in the life of the adolescent Mansfield in distress about her parents’ refusal to let her leave New Zealand for England, but the voice is all wrong.  On page xiii, she uses incongruous Americanisms such as ‘write Elizabeth’   and ‘I’ll go visit Julia’ (i.e. omitting the word ‘to’ in both cases) and her petulant tone owes more to banal American sitcoms than to the intelligent author of The Garden Party and In a German Pension.

Worse still is the way the chronology jumps around and events abruptly conclude with no apparent resolution. Flashbacks are used to try to patch up some of the missing information in parts of the novel where they really don’t fit, and some sequences in Mansfield’s life remain in limbo.  It’s ok to play creatively with chronology or to be somewhat selective about which events to include, but not when the reader is abandoned to total confusion.

This reader had no redress but to Google to find out when and why Mansfield’s first marriage fell apart.  This is because the story inexplicably jumps from the wedding day in 1909 at the end of the chapter, to 1919 in the next when she was living with Jack Middleton Murry.  There is no explanation about the intervening years.  I read on, expecting clarification, but there wasn’t any.

And it is a pity because this book has potential. It depicts the path of Mansfield’s writing and in places it illuminates influences on her stories.  It offers insights into the way Mansfield’s relationships were constrained wherever she went because of people’s very rational fear of catching TB in the days when there was no cure.  Her own husband Murry was afraid that he would catch this highly infectious disease, and his distaste for her physical symptoms hurt her feelings as much as his lack of concern for trying to ameliorate them.  Guests at the hotel in San Remo also feared contact with her and the manager asked her to leave because of it.  Her maid Augusta left her service for the same reason.

The novel also shows Mansfield’s desperate and risky attempts to get treatment that would enable her to go on writing, at a time when the complete bed rest in a sanatorium was the usual course of treatment (though largely ineffective).   It shows Ida Baker’s slavish devotion in contrast with Murry’s selfishness, and also the effects of TB on Mansfield’s temperament,  which perhaps accounts for her erratic emotional dependence on Murry (which otherwise seems so peculiar for such a strong-minded and independent woman).

This story of a courageous woman’s determination to fulfil her creative potential against the odds should have been a pleasure to read. Unfortunately it shows that a passion for one’s subject-matter is not enough.

However, in the interest of fairness, I suggest you peruse customer reviews at Amazon which are uniformly enthusiastic and have rated the book with 5 stars.  (Observant readers will notice that one of the reviewers is the purported editor of the novel).

Author: Joanna Fitzpatrick
Title: In Pursuit . . .: The Katherine Mansfield Story Retold
Publisher: Ladrome Press 2010 (but the website ladromepress.com takes you straight to Fitzpatrick’s home page)
ISBN: 9781453637340
Source: review copy courtesy of the author.

Katherine Mansfield: The Story-tellerUpdate 
There is a new biography entitled Katherine Mansfield: The Story-tellerby Kathleen Jones, which is endorsed by the patron of the Katherine Mansfield Society.  It’s fascinating, even if you’ve never read anything by Katherine Mansfield.  To see my review click here.  To buy it, click the link to go to Fishpond.

Update: for another perspective on In Pursuit see Beattie’s Book Blog.


Responses

  1. I have recently read Kathleen Jones’ biography of KM – it’s terrific. It’s been a long while since I’ve read a Mansfield biography so I didn’t object to going over her life again. Jones has structured it in a “jump-around way” but once I realised that we would, eventually, go back and pick up the thread again, it was okay.

    Interestingly, the biography devotes a sizeable chunk to what happened after KM died – the very long shadow she left over Middleton Murry’s life (his obsession) and those closest to him. The stories of the lives of his children are very sad.

    Well worth reading (I too, borrowed it from a library).

    As to the book you’ve reviewed here … I’ve read another review recently, much in the same vein.

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    • Hello Sandra, nice to meet another fan of Katherine Mansfield!
      I’m looking forward to reading this biography – and I’m not surprised that there’s a focus on Murry in the aftermath of KM’s death. I mean, it’s not easy to write a bio of someone who dies so young, even if they did have a most interesting life so it’s useful to extend the work in this way. But also Murry was such an odd character, he almost deserves a bio in his own right. I’m keen to know more about Ida Baker too, her selfless devotion seems too good to be true and yet that is apparently how she was.
      Hopefully there isn’t too long a wait for it from the library!
      Lisa
      PS I see from your email that you are a Kiwi, I hope the recovery is progressing well in the aftermath of your natural disasters. Nothing can take the place of loved ones, but getting things back to normal must help a little bit.

      Like

      • Thanks for the kind wishes, Lisa re the earthquake recovery.

        Christchurch is a good distance from where I live but, of course, the sad fact is that it could happen to any of us at any time … sobering thought. However, the human spirit is a wonderful thing and Cantabrians are showing plenty of grit and good humour in the face of it all.

        Best wishes,
        Sandra

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  2. I see from your link that Beattie’s has picked up on the Americanisms too, or else Katherine Mansfield was the only fin de siècle Kiwi on earth who referred to herself as “ornery.” Probably she was like those people who get a knock on the head and start speaking German; she contracted TB and Talent and started speaking American. Thank you for alerting me to that review by the editor, because the first line, with its wafting immensities, is the best laugh I’ve had since I woke up an hour and a half ago. It reminds me of Miss Codger in Martin Chuzzlewit introducing us, “Spirit searching, light abandoned, much too vast to enter on, at this unlooked-for crisis,” to the Transcendental lady in the wig.

    “When Katherine Mansfield wrote “Wind moving through grass so that the grass quivers. This moves me with an emotion I don’t even understand,” she could not have imagined that almost 90 years after her death, a writer from New York, Joanna FitzPatrick, would construct an utterly compelling novel about Mansfield’s brief and arduous life that would move her readers in ways that defy understanding.”

    … ending with the suggestion that this book about Mansfield’s life is more interesting than the life itself. And so the vision fadeth.

    Like


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