27 April 2011

Book Review: In Pursuit..., by Joanna FitzPatrick

In Pursuit..., by Joanna FitzPatrick, is published by La Drôme Press and available from the author's website, and from Amazon as a Kindle ebook and paperback.

Joanna FitzPatrick sent me "In Pursuit..." for review after she had read my interview with Kathleen Jones, the author of the recent, and very well-received biography Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller. "In Pursuit..." is a biographical novel rather than a biography, but it shares more in common with Kathleen Jones' biography than its subject. One of the notable features of "The Storyteller" is its non-linear time sequence, and "In Pursuit..." uses the same technique, although the time sequence becomes linear as the novel goes on.

I ended up enjoying "In Pursuit..." a lot, but I got off to a slightly rocky start with it. Part of that was circumstantial: having read "The Storyteller" so recently, I had a hard time resisting the urge to rush off to it every few pages to check whether the two books matched. Once I told myself firmly that this was a novel and that I should read it as such, those worries disappeared.

The novel is set in England and Europe apart from the appropriately-named Prelude, which is set in New Zealand in 1908, when Katherine was 19. This was the part of the novel I had the most trouble with, because, as someone who lives in Wellington, aspects of these scenes didn't quite ring true for me. I don't believe Katherine Mansfield would have said, or thought, "I'll go visit Julia" - that's still regarded as an American construction here over 100 years later. And I don't think - although I may be wrong - that KM would have been able to see from her house a ship leaving Wellington Harbour dwindling to a dot on the horizon.

(In saying this, I acknowledge that it is very difficult indeed for an author to get all the details right of a country she does not live in or regularly visit - though I didn't notice any problems of this sort in "The Storyteller". Also, I doubt these quibbles will mean anything to a reader who doesn't live in New Zealand.)

The good news is that, as soon as the story moved overseas and forward in time, I started to enjoy it. Joanna FitzPatrick acknowledges the editors of Katherine Mansfield's letters and diaries in her "Note on Sources", and it's clear that she has drawn on the letters in particular to flesh out a convincing portrait of Katherine and her circle.

I finished "The Storyteller" feeling considerable sympathy for both Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, but "In Pursuit..." is very much Katherine Mansfield's story. More than anything else, she struck me as a woman who was born before her time: someone whose talents might have flourished for much longer in an era when antibiotics could have dealt to her ailments and her desire for independence might have been better appreciated.

So, especially if you are interested in literary history in general or Katherine Mansfield in particular, I recommend that you get hold of a copy of "In Pursuit...".

P.S.: If you are interested in Katherine Mansfield, I also recommend that you check out the Katherine Mansfield Society, whose journal is currently calling for submissions for its forthcoming issue on "Katherine Mansfield and the Fantastic".


Rachel Fenton said...

It's interesting how books can compete with each other in the way you describe, and just how long a good book has a hold on you and influences your reading of another book.

Thanks for the info re KM society subs.

Kathleen Jones said...

Interesting comparisons Tim. I envy fiction writers for the generous leeway they have with the facts - and often a good novel can reach depths of emotional truth that a biographer never can. I found it difficult - actually impossible in the end - to read In Pursuit because I was always referencing the facts in my head and you can't do that with a novel.
I think on the whole that Joanna did a good job - it is her view of Katherine's life and the novelist has the right to take liberties with the facts!

Catherine said...

I think that dwindling to a dot on the horizon would have made me stumble, too. I agree, no possible from KM's house. I have enjoyed several books by Rose Tremain, but "The Colour" set in New Zealand, I found less gripping, and probably for the same reasons - I couldn't put my finger on it but Tremain's New Zealand just didn't ring true for me.

As for antibiotics - I fear we are rapidly returning to a time when we will have to do without.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Rachel, Kathleen, and Catherine, for your comments.

Kathleen, I was of course particularly interested to hear your perspective on "In Pursuit...". I had to tell myself firmly to treat it as a novel, not a biography, before I could relax and enjoy it - I can well imagine that this would have been an insuperable problem for you!

Catherine, I had a similar experience with the science fiction novel "Earth", by David Brin, which is partly set in New Zealand. I know that David Brin did research in New Zealand when writing the novel, but all the same, the New Zealand scenes are just - I guess "off" is the best word - in a variety of little ways, and that prevented me from enjoying the novel.

I fear that you are right about antibiotics - in fact, I almost added a postscript to the review to this effect, but ran out of time.

ANZ LitLovers said...

Hello Tim, I thought that Jones's bio was an infinitely better book in every way, see http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/katherine%c2%a0mansfield-the-storyteller-by-kathleen-jones/. In Pursuit was too much of a muddle to be enjoyable reading IMO, see http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/in-pursuit-by-joanna-fitzpatrick/
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers