• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Mansfield with Monsters by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens review

Against all expectations, Mansfield with Monsters proves to be grand fun.

Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens - Mansfield with MonstersFantasy mash-ups of literary classics tend to work better as anecdotes than they do as reading matter. If you can find someone who’s never heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, all you need do to fetch a delighted laugh is tell them the title. The actual book is enjoyable mostly for its illustrations. This is because it was written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who delicately refashions Jane Austen’s prose in the manner of a wrecking ball refashioning a Regency-era tea set. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, nonetheless, has surfed the wave of interest generated by its title to a sales figure in excess of a million copies worldwide, which is presumably the explanation for the subsequent glut of really bad mash-ups, which is, in turn, the explanation for my bored sigh as I picked up Matt and Debbie Cowens’s Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon. Imagine my surprise: this little book is grand fun.

The Cowens tweak Mansfield’s stories the absolute minimum amount required to transform them into HP Lovecraftian horrors. (It’s less than you’d think.) They bring a wicked sense of humour and a keen editorial ear to the project; I ended up reading their versions with the originals open beside me, so I could track down each individual alteration. Because you never know what the fantasy element in a given story will be, you have to treat each metaphor as a potential literal statement. The uncertainty transforms the reading experience delightfully: the girl described as a butterfl y in The Garden Party might actually have wings. She doesn’t, it transpires, but ravenous giant insects feature. Everyone is very matter of fact about them. More from the Cowens, please.

MANSFIELD WITH MONSTERS: THE UNTOLD STORIES OF A NEW ZEALAND ICON, by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens (Steam Press, $25).

David Larsen is a writer and Listener film reviewer