Stead (Talking About O’Dwyer, 2000, etc.) takes a fellow New Zealander, short-story master Katherine Mansfield, as the protagonist of his listless tenth novel.
Not that the three years of Mansfield’s life covered here aren’t eventful: her beloved brother, Leslie Beauchamp, dies while giving grenade instruction to fellow soldiers in France; she spends a few days in the war zone making love with a French officer during one of the many low points in her ambivalent relationship with English literary man John (Jack) Middleton Murry; and the story closes in 1918 with her realization that she has TB, which the epilogue reminds us killed her five years later. But the focus is relentlessly inward; each chapter takes us inside the thoughts of a separate individual—Mansfield, Beauchamp, Murry, their friend Fred Goodyear (who also dies in the war), Frieda Lawrence, Dora Carrington—each one musing about their conflicted feelings in a way not nearly as interesting as the pioneering fiction of Mansfield herself or of Frieda’s husband. D.H. Lawrence is depicted at work during this period on Women in Love, based in part on his and Frieda’s charged friendship with Mansfield and Murry, but none of that novel’s stormy passion seeps into these pages. It’s all rather bloodless, right down to the parade of literary friends who make desultory appearances. T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and Lytton Strachey are no more than sketches drawn from the ample shelf of books on this overstudied crowd; even “Bertie” Russell’s mildly amorous pursuit of Mansfield is . . . mild. Stead does manage a few sharp passages on Mansfield’s work, as she thinks over the urgings of Goodyear and D.H. Lawrence to move beyond being “too smart at the expense of common mortals” and concludes, “better honest about what I see around me . . . than a gypsy violinist playing oh so feelingly off the note.” That’s not enough of a revelation to redeem an excessively low-key narrative.
Relies too much on its characters’ famous names to hold the reader’s attention.