Book Review: Mansfield & Me, by Sarah Laing

Available now in bookshops nationwide.This book is launched tonight at Unity Books Wellington, from 6pm.

cv_mansfield_and_meI am genuinely curious to see where this book ends up on the bestsellers lists: fiction or non-fiction? Two things are for sure: it’s from NZ, and it’s going to be there.

I’ve admired Sarah Laing’s work since her first publication, Coming up roses. Her web comic Let Me Be Frank has been a mainstay in my regular rounds of websites of people I like to see life alongside, and it is a joy to see her artistic talent, her descriptions of real life, and her skill with sort-of fiction come together in Mansfield & Me.

Sarah Laing’s obsession with Mansfield as a like-mind begins with a drawing in her Aunt Aliosn’s home drawn by Mansfield’s friend Edith Robison, “She was a naughty girl, that Kathleen.” The story takes off from there, drawing phases of Sarah’s life and aligning them either to parts of Mansfield’s life, or her stories. ‘Her first ball’ is one of my favourite chapters, with the alignment of Laing’s preparations for her first ball with the story of that name by Katherine Mansfield, segued nicely through a read-aloud of this story in class, and finished with a rumination on what Mansfield might have been feeling when she wrote the story.

As the book carries on, the alignment of Laing and Mansfield’s lives becomes more marked. As Kim Hill remarked in her interview with Laing on Radio NZ over the weekend, it isn’t forced. The similarities are certainly there. Her determination to be what she was destined to be – graphic designer, writer, whatever – is similar. The series of varied sexual relationships – now quite usual and accepted, but in Mansfield’s days possibly usual (in the Bloomsbury group at least) but not widely accepted. And the reaction that occurs in many New Zealanders at some stage – a desire to be anywhere but here, to kickstart your life somewhere that isn’t so small, so small-minded.

My emotions at the end of this book were confused. I was a little jealous – I’m always a little jealous of people A Lot more talented than I, and Laing has followed her passions in a way I don’t dare to. But then I was just… wow. This book is a fabulous piece of work, and one that will stick around in Mansfield’s ouevre, ensuring Sarah Laing’s name stays in the public consciousness. And that it ought to.

And, again inspired by a remark from Kim Hill, it has also acted as a ‘doorway drug’. I’m going to go to the secret bookshelf under the stairs and find the collection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories I have stashed there somewhere; and get inspired by her.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Mansfield & Me: A Graphic Memoir
by Sarah Laing
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560691

Afterword: Just reflecting on this book, and on Billy Bird (which I haven’t yet published my review of but loved); and thinking while I understand the cultural cringe that has led to our literature to be brushed off by too many readers, these types of books are why we need to read New Zealand authors. I could not have felt this close to a woman growing up in New York, or Toronto, or Iraq. And while Billy Bird had a more international feel, it and other recent books by the likes of Danyl McLauchlan and Tim Wilson, just prove the fact that New Zealand has more talented writers than anybody could suspect; and they don’t all write in one genre. They don’t write in one note. They write diverse, creative and exciting work: read it.

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