When I became aware of Linda Lappin’s book, Katherine’s Wish, I raced to get a copy, and subsequently spent several hours mesmerized.
Lappin’s an observant writer, able to slip into the skins of her historical characters and make us want to know more, more, more! Yet from the novel’s beginning, she doesn’t allow us to get comfortable, and I find that admirable. She plops us on a train with Katherine Mansfield, who is trying not to cough so as not to give away how sick she is, the smell of mothballs and perspiration stinking up the scene. She desperately wants a cup of tea; her muscles ache from being cramped in this claustrophobia-inducing place for hours. A strange man crowds the compartment. This is no woman fading gently of consumption in a “romantic” way. This is a woman facing obstacles on every side. She’s in pain. She’s alone. She doesn’t know how she’s even going to carry her luggage when she does get off the train.
I admire the realism with which Lappin paints the story. Because of the extremes poor Mansfield suffers for her art, we learn to value it as much as she does, and we root for her all the more.
But Lappin evenhandedly doesn’t let us miss how selfish Mansfield can be in her illness, how no matter how much she suffers, her devoted friend/once lover, Ida Baker, suffers nearly as much, whether physically caring for the ailing writer, doing arduous chores for her when there’s no one else to do them, or being hired out to pay their way when there’s no money. All of this when Ida wants nothing more than to retain Mansfield’s love and attention, but Mansfield can think of no one but her beloved John Middleton Murry, also a writer.
While she needs Ida, she wants Murry. She’s obsessed with the man. Though they have agreed to have an open relationship, it torments her when he strays. It does not seem to bother her, however, when she trades sexual favors to get what she wants from a doctor. It’s a confident, skilled author who can allow her characters to be imperfect. In fact, her imperfections only make Mansfield more intriguing.
Being a writer, naturally I was most taken with the middle parts of the novel that center on Mansfield’s writing process. I could have read 50 more pages of her fighting with her muse, struggling and succeeding.
As a fan of Virginia Woolf, I devoured the scenes featuring her. I was struck by how restrained Lappin made Woolf when Woolf and Mansfield meet after Mansfield’s lukewarm review of Woolf’s latest book, Night and Day. Mansfield objects to Woolf’s exclusion of the war, and so damns it with faint praise in writing rather than confront the absence of it.
Though the passage mirrors what Woolf later wrote in her journal about the meeting, it does make one squirm to hear the authors discuss the review, even obliquely. In both versions, Woolf shows a vulnerability and an openness to another author’s opinion. It’s refreshing and touching. However, knowing that Woolf could be a bit waspish, however accurately Lappin related the meeting, I’m not convinced Woolf accurately reported it in her journal in the first place.
A repeated reversal of fortunes even today describes all too often the lot of a writer, but for Mansfield, it seemed a sad way of life. She’d get ahead, then her medical treatments or her doctor’s orders to move somewhere with a better climate would impoverish her and Murry again. Mansfield and Murry were often apart during these times because his work wouldn’t allow him – or so he said – to join her. Yet ultimately, you get the feeling that they were quite fond of one another and though they had an unconventional relationship, it worked for them.
If you know Mansfield’s story, you know how it ends (tragically, as happens with so many creatives, as if they must pay for their gift with their life). Lappin doesn’t take us that far on the journey, but she hints broadly – and painfully, exquisitely– at it.
A paragraph on the last page of the book gorgeously illustrates the weighting of Mansfield’s soul, the closing out of her days:
“The fire was dying. Dusk had fallen. Katherine sat before the hearth, wrapped in her shawl. Her feet and hands were numb. There were no more logs to add to the fire. It was growing late and still no one had come for her. Surely Monsieur Gurdjieff had not forgotten she was still here waiting? The house seemed so silent. She went to the window, opened it wide and leaned out into the cold. No lights burned in the other windows. The lawn and the porter’s lodge were deserted, then from far away came the sound of a piano, an insistent rhythm, an eerie melody.”
These words, of course, contain a double meaning. The woman is dying. Every remedy has failed, no doctor can keep her alive, though she wants desperately to continue living, continue writing, but, alas, “There were no more logs to add to the fire.”
Lappin masterfully doesn’t say the writer is dying. In fact, in the closing paragraph, Mansfield wishes she could live forever, an ironic wish given her shortened life.
Lappin’s inclusion of the grimmer details of Mansfield’s life styles the story: this sophisticated choice befits the study of a modernist writer.
I seldom say a book transports me, but this one truly did. I suffered along with both Mansfield and Ida. I shivered during the wintery scenes. My stomach rumbled along with theirs during their lean times, and I longed to send them a pizza through time and space. When they feasted, I exalted. When her work went well, I rejoiced.
I’ve read a couple of Mansfield’s stories, and I read about her friendship with Virginia Woolf in the excellent A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. This winter, especially after reading Lappin’s novel, I aim to read more Mansfield.
Here’s a link to one of her collections, including “The Garden Party,” probably her best-known story. The opening lines are just gorgeous, and beg to be studied.
If you have any interest in modernist literature, in “smart” books and topics, in Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, in a writer who lives a life of illness while trying desperately to keep herself alive by (and for) writing, or if you just love well-written novels, you’ll love Lappin’s book.
In honor of her book tour, Linda has also generously provided readers with the opportunity to win a copy of her book! Four winner will receive ecopies, and one US reader will win a print copy. Enter today!
Linda Lappin, author
In this dramatic, fictional retelling of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield‘s final years, and of the events which led up to her meeting with P.D. Ouspensky and G. I Gurdjieff, novelist Linda Lappin transports the reader like a time traveler into Mansfield’s intimate world.
Scrupulously researched and richly evocative, the novel has been praised by Mansfield scholars as “creative scholarship.”
With vivid detail and beautiful language and style, Lappin has built on journals, letters, and diaries to fashion a true-to-life mosaic, using themes, motifs, and methods of Mansfield’s own writing.
Katherine’s Wish celebrates Mansfield’s deep love of life and its final message is a life-affirming one of joy and of wholeness achieved.
Finalist, ForeWord Book of the Year Award in fiction,
IPPY Gold medal in historical fiction,
honorable mention Hoffer Awards, honorable mention Paris Book Festival,
finalist Next Generation Indie Awards.
A radio play adaptation of Katherine’s Wish is forthcoming.