Thieves by Janice Kulyk Keefer (HarperFlamingo), 301 pages. $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Katherine Mansfield was the kind of woman people either loved or loathed. And in this reimagining of her life and of the people obsessed with her, Janice Kulyk Keefer makes it vividly clear why. The New Zealand-born author died young, at age 30 of tuberculosis, but until the moment she passed away, Mansfield lived her life large. She was loud, opinionated, probably lied a lot and was prodigiously talented.
Pure ambition and a yearning to escape small-town Karori drove her to Paris and London. She took lovers of both sexes, married a man for two hours, fleeing him to pursue a long-time passion, and finally settled down, sort of, in a tempestuous marriage.
Through all these experiences she wrote short works that were the envy of her contemporaries - Virginia Woolf admitted that Mansfield was the only writer she'd every been jealous of.
Mansfield got a reaction from just about everyone she encountered during her life, but central to Kulyk Keefer's book is the extent to which biographers became enthralled with her after her death.
Kulyk Keefer invents two such writers, Roger and Monty, father and son, both so taken with Mansfield that they can't separate fact from fiction and, more importantly, her life from theirs.
It's here that the novel falters slightly, especially when Monty heads off to Chicago and Windsor to track down some of Mansfield's lost, possibly stolen, letters. There's supposed to be mystery and suspense here, but it never really revs up.
As a fictionalized biography of Mansfield, however, Thieves scores big points. Kulyk Keefer evokes for the reader all the reactions Mansfield generated in the people around her: revulsion, especially when Mansfield uses her adoring friend Ida Baker; admiration for her passion; and relief that her writing flows more easily the closer she comes to her death.
You'll want to read Mansfield after you've read Kulyk Keefer, and that says a lot.
Kulyk Keefer joins the This Is Not A Reading Series on Wednesday (February 25). See Readings, this page.
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