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The Collected Short Stories
Katherine Mansfield

 

"I don’t believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux – packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle… "

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

I first picked up this book when I was pregnant, having been warned there was a good chance my brain would turn to mush during the early stages of motherhood; Katherine Mansfield was my investment against this fate, a way of taxing my literary intelligence during what, in her day, would have been called my confinement. Also, I loved the cover, which at the time featured a dish of vanilla ice-cream on a Liberty print tablecloth, silver spoon and strawberries. I expected the stories to serve up similar dainty delights, glimpses of a bygone era where ladies wore gloves and carried lace parasols. It’s an easy trap to fall into, given the era and class to which Mansfield belonged. But I quickly discovered why she was considered to have revolutionised the genre with stories which were the envy of, among others, Virginia Woolf.

Diagnosed at the age of 29 with tuberculosis, Mansfield spent much of her adult life traveling in pursuit of better health. These travels, and the nature of her quest, are reflected in the stories she wrote. Always surprising, often shocking, the stories extend an apparently sedate invitation to view the lives of people engaged in struggles, external and internal, often complicated by misunderstandings, deceptions or outright fraud. Few people are what they appear to be on the surface. Watch out for anything which at first sight resembles trivia; it won’t be. These stories are more likely to bite than soothe, several are guaranteed to make you uncomfortable and some will stay with you for years. Not content with keeping my brain from becoming mush, Mansfield bushwhacked my perceived understanding of why and what women were writing a century ago. Open this book almost anywhere and I guarantee you will be surprised at what you find. Mansfield writes, compellingly and compassionately but without ever flinching, about prostitution and child abuse, homosexuality and lust, and about sudden, life-changing regret.

Take A Dill Pickle, for instance. The incongruous title perfectly reflects the slippery, evasive love story at the heart of this piece. A woman rediscovers an old flame and they speak of what might have been, each one bound by some uncertain need to make an impact, to wound the other and unburden a little of the lingering bitterness following their break-up. The woman is devastated by the idea that she let go the only person in the world who understands her, but ultimately it’s revealed that the man is a self-engrossed egotist. That’s not enough for Mansfield, who hints that the woman might equally be accused of egotism, the willful denial of her own vanities. All this and a fabulous description of the dill pickle, ‘… the greenish glass jar with a red chilli like a parrot’s beak glimmering through. She sucked in her cheeks; the dill pickle was terribly sour…’

Several stories in the collection are written from the perspective of men. What’s more, Mansfield writes convincingly as a man. From the perversely effete Raoul Duquette in Je Ne Parle Pas Français, to the wonderfully weary narrator in A Married Man’s Story, maybe it’s here that Mansfield best demonstrates her skill as a story-teller, an extraordinary ability to make chameleonic leaps between characters and perspectives, to extract pathos and humour and wonder from deceptively domestic tales. 

Sarah Hilary’s stories have been published in The Beat, Neon, SHINE, Bewildering Stories, Every Day Fiction, LitBits, MYTHOLOG, HeavyGlow, Twisted Tongue, Static Movement, Kaleidotrope and the Boston Literary Magazine. Her short story, On the line, was published in the Daunt Books 2006 anthology. She won the Litopia "Winter Kills" Contest in 2007 with her story The Chaperon. Sarah lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and young daughter.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Sophie Hannah "The Fanastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"   
Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Publisher: Penguin Books

Publication Date: 2007 (first published by Penguin in 1981)

Paperback/Hardback?Paperback

First collection?: No

Author bio:

 Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888 and died in Fontainebleau in 1923. She came to London for the latter part of her education, and could not settle down back in Wellington society; in 1908 she again left for Europe, never to return. By 1917 she had contracted tuberculosis, and from that time led a wandering life in search of health.  Katherine Mansfield was a compulsive writer. Three volumes of her stories appeared in her lifetime. Her work has been translated into 26 languages, and in 1988, the centennial of her birth, five international conferences focused on her life and work.

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If you liked this book you might also like:

The Collected Works of Elizabeth Bowen

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