Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: Mansfield and Me by Sarah Laing

Above: The cover of Mansfield and Me by Sarah Laing.

One of the great delights of the NZ Summer Holidays is the opportunity to take the time to sit back in the sun and enjoy reading some of the great books released over the Christmas period. When it comes to new graphic novel releases, Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me was the ‘must read’ of the summer. Released in October, it spent over 10 weeks on the Booksellers Top Ten List, with strong sales ensuring the book made it into plenty of Christmas Stockings over the holidays.

A graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me traces Laing’s journey to becoming a writer alongside the life of Kathrine Mansfield, one of her literary idols. Memoirs have become a hugely popular sub-genre of graphic novels – drawing praise and recognition from the literary community, from titles as diverse as Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home to the likes of Freddie and Me by Mike Dawson. Laing has a similar starting point to Dawson, whose book discussed his adolescence and fan obsession with Freddie Murcury. Laing mentions her own teen idols - Morrissey, Madonna and Frida Kahlo, but it is Mansfield whose presence is most felt in the background of her everyday life, from community stories to sharing geographically linked childhood experiences.

While Dawson’s book was primarily about a fan experience, Laing’s memoir goes deeper: tracking the intersections between her own life and literary ambitions and Mansfield’s. There are passages in the book where she imagines interacting with Mansfield, almost haunted by her presence - at times Mansfield pops up to offer commentary and faint praise as Sarah’s writing career progresses. These interactions drive one of the most compelling themes of the book: how do we measure ourselves against our idols?

Laing does a great job of seamlessly weaving her life with Mansfield’s, finding places where they intersect (both professionally and personally): both Laing and Mansfield left New Zealand to pursue a career in writing – Mansfield to England, Laing to New York. There’s a passage where Laing writes about moving to the country to flat with her first boyfriend and a difficult flatmate, contrasted to Mansfield’s own country living experience with her second husband John Middleton Murry, and their neighbour novelist D.H. Lawrence, who also turned out to be difficult and demanding host (at one point challenging Murry to a naked wrestling match – as one does).

Above: A page from Mansfield and Me by Sarah Laing.

Laing shares from her own life and experiences very candidly – the eventful missteps in relationships and jobs, and the changing circumstances that ultimately brought her back to New Zealand and her dream of becoming a published writer. A goal she achieved in 2007 with her short story collection, Coming up Roses. She was 34, the same age Mansfield was when she died.

This is a very personal memoir, produced in vibrant watercolour artwork written in Laing’s own handwriting, which really gives you that tactile feel, like you’re reading from a private diary and sketchbook.

It’s a book about that compelling urge to be creative with the time you have – Mansfield achieved so much in a short time, but it was extremely difficult in her last years with tuberculosis. She never got to write that great novel, as she bitterly laments to Sarah after reading her short story collection: “you still have time…unlike me”. Laing has since written two novels and an ongoing blog with plenty of new comics to come.

It’s a remarkable ode to creativity and a personal journey to achieving one’s ambitions. If you love great memoirs and want to experience one that’s a bit unconventional but highly entertaining, this is the one for you.
You can visit Sarah Laing's blog, Let Me Be Frank HERE for more of her comics and out-takes/bonus material from Mansfield and Me. You can also listen to my review of Mansfield and Me featured on Radio NZ HERE.

Mansfield and Me Sarah Laing
336 Pages
Paperback, colour
ISBN: 9781776560691
Published by Victoria University Press
RRP: $34.99

- AK!

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