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What is real?

Thorndon – Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99 PB, $4.99 e-book)
Review by Pip Adam

Thordon“What is real, for a writer? What is the lived, the imagined? The light, the dark? Is it that the remembered may be deemed more powerful than the dreamed? The sadness, going down into the depths more grounded, more true, than the procession up into the bright world of stories and plans and wonder? To what extent, instead, like Milton’s sun ‘dark with excessive bright’, might the world of one also be the world of another, sun and moon together in continual eclipse and radiance, day and night at play together in the imagination in writing, in stories.” That’s Kirsty Gunn writing in Thorndon – Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project.

When I finish it, the book seems bigger than the 119 pages I held when it first arrived. The reading has expanded it. Part of this is the thumbing and the bending back of the spine, the folding over of corners, the plump of the notes I’ve made in the margins with fat blue and black ballpoint. But it’s more to do with the way the book spreads and pushes at the boundaries of the way we think we are. It’s because it refuses singularity. The world and our experience in it seems to dictate we are either ‘here’ or ‘there’, ‘warm’ or ‘cold’, ‘this person’ or ‘that’, but in Thorndon Gunn manages to create new places, new ways of being where two states can exist at the same time. In this way the book seems to multiply beyond its floor plan. Like that chilling place in the novel House of Leaves, Gunn invents the possibility of a state that is somehow larger on the inside than on the outside.

Thorndon has been published by Bridget Williams Books as part of its BWB Texts series: a group of ‘short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’, and this seems fitting. While the physical books of this series are beautiful objects to hold, they were commissioned as digital-first works. So in this way, even the ‘book’ exists in two spaces.

In 2009 Gunn travelled from London to Wellington to become the Randell Cottage Creative NZ Writer in Residence. Thorndon is a work which records and curates the residency through fiction, notebook musings, poetry and extracts from other people’s work, including Katherine Mansfield’s. It includes a paper Gunn presented at the 2008 International Katherine Mansfield Conference. Called Place, familiarity and distance: What Katherine Mansfield taught me, the paper is reproduced, Gunn writes, “to show how it became like a kind of map for me”. In it Gunn explores her own reactions to reading Mansfield’s Miss Brill as a student at Queen Margaret College in Thorndon:

“For it was when I became aware of what Mansfield’s imagination had done, when I saw that where Miss Brill sat listening to the brass band was figured from the Botanic Gardens, just up the road from where I sat in my classroom that day, as well as made up for a story in an English park in an English, or, for that matter, European, country… I realised what her fiction was effecting. That is: its own world. Its own autonomous context – a place where the stories that grow out of it are made real not by their reference to a known, factually established town or country but in the very pages we are reading.”

Mansfield as a figure of two places is a well-worn trope but there is something about the way Gunn stalks these ideas which imagines them anew. The work is much concerned with Gunn’s own ‘place’ as a New Zealand-born London/Dundee resident who travels to live for a time in the suburb she grew up in. It is this, coupled with the echo-chamber of the multiple forms, that enacts the theoretical in a way that progresses Gunn’s exploration on emotional and aesthetic as well as logical grounds. She produces the book’s ‘own world’ in the ‘very pages we are reading’ in order to say something about Mansfield’s work and, in doing, so about all writing. We meet a place or an object or an atmosphere in personal essay, then in Mansfield’s words, then in fiction, then perhaps again in personal response or the words of the people populating Gunn’s time at Randell Cottage. So the place or thing or person is not one thing – it is altered in a way that allows us to see the work imagination is doing and the possibility of multiplicity – of being somehow ‘home’ and ‘away’.

At times delineated by sub-headings and at times bleeding into each other, the forms are managed with extreme stealth and craft. The name ‘Katherine’ belongs not only to Mansfield but to one of Gunn’s daughters who is with her in Thorndon, and Gunn uses this to disorientate to break down the seeming boundary of time and place and person. In the beginning of the book we read repeatedly that Gunn has come from a Northern Hemisphere summer to a Wellington winter and it is through this repetition that we see these seasons altering, at times blending, at times standing stridently apart but always and oddly existing, if only in this constructed container of experience, at once.

This type of play is at its most extreme when the book slides from the ‘I’ to a work of fiction. Thorndon includes several short stories, which are extremely good pieces in their own right, but because we also read ‘their workings’ – the places and thoughts and experiences they were created in – they become something even bigger than the sum of their parts. In the shift from non-fiction to fiction, it takes a moment for the brain to catch up, so in places the female characters of the short stories who live in cottages in winter look like Gunn but of course, they’re not. Their cottages are different to the one Gunn is in; they’re in these cottages for different reasons but for split seconds the writer and her characters exist together in the same moment of time and place. It’s an intriguing insight into the genesis of a fiction but this disconcerting doppelganger effect also serves to remind us, when we return to a section of non-fiction, that even here the ‘I’ is a construct. That, despite the intimate tone and details, this work has a master, a different Kirsty Gunn, who is moving things around to entertain us, yes, but also to enable us to see things, ourselves, Mansfield, the possibilities of writing itself in new ways.

It seems impossible after reading this work to walk the streets of Thorndon in the same way again, as the same person again. Through masterful control of form and language, Gunn holds in balance multiple, often opposed, possibilities to create a work which has fresh and exciting things to say about writing and reading and place.