Katherine's Wish

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 February, 2009, 12:00am

Katherine's Wish

by Linda Lappin

Wordcraft, HK$132

Katherine Mansfield wrote many resonant short stories but her enduring appeal is owing to other factors. She was one of the first colonials to establish herself at the centre of London literary life; she had affairs with people of both sexes, which created an aura of scandal, and died early, at 34 in 1923, which added to her myth.

American author Linda Lappin has undertaken a daunting task in her novel about Mansfield. The trouble with fictional biographies of real people is readers often know the outlines of the story and are not given new insights into the characters: in this case, Mansfield's friend D.H. Lawrence is, as expected, both colourful and cussed while, again as expected, her handsome husband, literary critic Middleton Murry, is indecisive and lacklustre.

But Lappin, wearing 15 years of research into Mansfield lightly, rises to the challenges.

Instead of trying to trace Mansfield's whole life Lappin focuses on the last four years, when she was trying to write as much as possible before her likely death from consumption. Her contradictory Mansfield, both irritable and sensitive, is convincingly complex.

The highlight of Katherine's Wish is Mansfield's relationship with her lifelong friend Ida Baker, who is clumsy, dull and necessary. It is hard to tell whether Ida's devotion is altruistic or an attempt to possess Katherine. Her stolidity is a splendid foil for Katherine's flighty brilliance.

Katherine is exasperated by Ida: 'Her breaking things. Her inane conversation. Her appalling ignorance. Her maudlin tears. Her suffocating care.' Here is Ida fumbling with change: 'Katherine knew she should be grateful, yet Ida's every awkward gesture, every little blunder jarred her nerves.'

But they stayed together almost to the end, with Katherine frequently screaming in exasperation at Ida and later suffering remorse because she recognised that she could not have written 10 words in her last years, 'if Ida had not been there to make the tea, boil the eggs, rush back and forth with her hot-water bottles, however tepid, and keep her supplied with stamps and milk and bread, while she lay wrapped in blankets'.

Lappin's novel begins in 1918 and follows Mansfield as she moves to and from London and the wartime Italian and French rivieras, where she sought relief from her tuberculosis. She falls into the hands of a charlatan whose alleged cure worsens her condition.

Finally she reaches a villa at Fontainebleau, France, where she entrusts herself to Russian guru Georges Gurdjieff.

There is a ghastly irony in the fact that she died within three months, suffering a haemorrhage after running up stairs to show her husband how well she was.

Lappin's intensely imagined novel will satisfy readers unfamiliar with Mansfield as well as those already intrigued by her.