Katherine Mansfield died from tuberculosis at the age of 34, a year after the publication of this collection of short stories.
There is something quite captivating about her writing, although it took me a little while to realise it. The first few pages didn't seem too promising. The first story is At the Bay, and it begins with a long descriptive passage of a coastal scene in New Zealand. The writing is beautiful, almost poetic, and her observations are minute and detailed. It is clear she is attempting to evoke a sense of the landscape as it would be experienced by all the senses, to convey not only how it looks, but how it sounds, and what it would feel like to be there. And yet I found it a little tedious; I could see the skill in her writing but I couldn't find any interest in her subject, and I disliked the frequent use of onomatopoeic words.
But then she turns her focus onto people, conveying them with this same keenness of observation, and in consequence achieves something remarkable. She takes as her subject conventional domestic life, the ordinary everyday moments, and she subjects them to an unusually intense scrutiny. In doing so she highlights aspects of shared experience that are usually not remarked upon, things so commonly experienced that they are never really noticed. And it is done so compactly, that sometimes a single line or thought will reveal the character of the subject.
The first is Stanley Burnell. We follow his thoughts during an early morning swim in the New Zealand bay, and his frustration when he is forced to share the ocean with his brother-in-law Jonathon Trout. Stanley's focus is completely on himself; he expresses an impatience about everything not moulded to conform to his wishes: the way he looks at life it seems evident that his problem should be everyone's problem, his desire everyone's priority. And as he leaves for work his self-centredness is summarised so effectively in his departing thought: 'No time to say goodbye!' he cried. And he meant that as a punishment to her. And then the moment he is gone - the relief that settles on the household, a collective expiration, the delicious sense of a day made perfect by someone's temporary absence. Who doesn't know that feeling?
A portrayal of the unreflectively selfish individual imposing themself, and through their personality oppressing the lives of those around them, is an element common to many of the stories, whether it is the pampered teenager in The Young Girl, the dead father in The Daughters of the Late Colonel, or the appalling wife in Marriage à la Mode. Other stories are written from the viewpoint of the oppressed: as reflections on the past as in Life of Ma Parker and as a monologue in The Lady's Maid. These stories quietly emphasise the tragedy of working-class life. The collection of stories comes across as a critique of the bourgeoisie.
But it was the first and longest story, At the Bay, which I enjoyed the most, with its unusual meandering through the consciousnesses of each of the characters, and its revealing snapshots of family life. There was only one moment in which I felt she had it wrong, one character in whom I couldn't believe. It was Linda, the wife of Stanley Burnell, who when left alone with her baby son, quietly reveals her secret: she doesn't love her children. Surely this could only have been written by someone who wasn't herself a mother? The keenest of observations can only ever reveal part of the truth; some things can only be understood through experiencing them.