Reviews of A CHILD OF THE SUN
5-star Amazon review (Oct 29):
This book is like a subtle jewel. At first, it seems to be just a continuation of what Katherine Mansfield’s memoirs might have been, had she lived longer and written them herself. But as I stayed with the book, I began to appreciate how its structure was a mirror of the ideas contained within it. There is a clarity and sincerity here that radiates. For anyone who may be interested in how inner work takes place, fascinated by that time in history, a Mansfield fan, or who wants a different kind of view into Gurdjieff’s work, spending time with this beautifully crafted volume is a real treat.
Publishers Weekly review:
Butler’s (A Riddle of Stars) ode to a once-blossoming author, an imaginative epistolary account based on the turn-of-the-20th-century historical record, chronicles Katherine Mansfield’s final months…More than just a retelling of Katherine’s emotional struggles and deteriorating health, the novel illuminates the teachings of the Institute: to accept all forms of the self, put others first, feel empathy for all types of human suffering, and forgive and accept the past.
“…Katherine’s courage as a dying woman who still sought her own spiritual truths highlights her humanity and elicits additional compassion for her suffering and untimely death. The novel explores themes of early twentieth-century New Age spirituality, using them as a means to address Katherine Mansfield’s chronic illness, her intense self-scrutiny, and her admirable struggle for self-awareness. Child of the Sun also evokes pointed questions from a healthy readership about their own mortality.” KAI WHITE
Peter Quinn (http://www.newyorkpaddy.com/index.html) on A CHILD OF THE SUN: Pierce Butler is a penetratingly eloquent and precise prose stylist. In A Child of the Sun, he explores with tenderness, truthfulness and unfailing insight the intricate play of shadow and light that competes in every pilgrim soul. The quiet urgency and compelling drama of the spiritual journey pervade every page. This is a rare, wise and wonderful book. I intend to return to it many, many times.
Review of A CHILD OF THE SUN by Joseph Azize
George Ellenbogen on A CHILD OF THE SUN: “In this journey to –and through—Gurdjieff’s Institute, Pierce Butler deftly arranges the moments of his work so that the reader cares less about what is real or imagined and more about the engrossing struggle of a vital and nimble sensibility to find a faith that will protect it against the incursions of disease and doubt. In presenting Katherine Mansfield’s impulses to reach outward, Butler endows the reader with the means to endure her pain in order to grow into a larger understanding. This is a novel to hold one’s attention long after it has been read”
Book Review by Gerri Kimber, Katherine Mansfield Society Newsletter, Issue 25, December 2016
Katherine Mansfield has always been of interest to novelists, several of whom have fictionalised various periods of her life…There are surely others, but here are some that spring immediately to mind: Nelia Gardner White, Daughter of Time (1942), which covers her whole life; C. K. Stead, Mansfield: A Novel (2004), which focuses on three years of her life during WW1; Janice Kulyk Keefer, Thieves (2004), which creates a modern day mystery story, centred on aspects of her life and some missing manuscripts; Linda Lappin, Katherine’s Wish (2008), which fictionalises her life from 1918 onwards; and finally, Joanna Fitzpatrick, In Pursuit … A Novel (2010), which covers her life from 1908 until her death. In addition, there is William Orton’s The Last Romantic (1937), which is, in fact, a loosely fictionalised autobiography, and which contains a compelling section detailing the author’s romance with Mansfield over the course of several months. There have also been numerous plays written about aspects of her life: for example, Vincent O’Sullivan’s Jones and Jones (1989), Amy Rosenthal’s On the Rocks (2008), and Lorae Parry’s Bloomsbury Women & The Wild Colonial Girl (2010).
The details of Mansfield’s life, of course, are so utterly compelling, for so many different reasons, that they beg retelling. In addition, the magnetic personality that comes through in the letters and notebooks offers a wonderful model for a protagonist in a work of fiction. Indeed, biofiction is now a widely recognised genre of storytelling, attracting literary criticism and academic conferences, where scholars debate the merits – or otherwise – of such writing. As Michael Lackey notes: ‘One of the major stumbling blocks for understanding biofiction has been the scholarly desire to find a way to manage, balance, and negotiate the competing and sometimes contradictory demands of biography (representation) and fiction (creation)’.
In A Child of the Sun, Pierce Butler negotiates the potential pitfalls of biofiction with ease. His novel recreates the last three months of Mansfield’s life, from her arrival in Paris on 3 October 1922 and and her subsequent journey to Gurdjieff’s ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ at Le Prieuré des Basses-Loges in Fontainebleau-Avon, where she remained until her death on 9 January 1923. Once there, Mansfield stopped writing in her notebooks, and only wrote letters to a few close friends and family. Butler chooses to recreate those missing weeks by inventing a journal kept by Mansfield, whilst sticking as closely as possible to known facts about her time at the Institute. The only diversion from historical record is the invention of a young boy, Patrick, which, as Butler explains in his Prefatory Note, gives ‘expression to the longing for a child that appears so frequently in KM’s published journal and letters’, as well as exploring ‘the nature of Gurdjieff’s relationships with the children and the adults of the Prieuré’.
The book is divided into three sections: Hope, Faith, and Love, replicating words from a quote by Gurdjieff at the beginning of the volume, but also acknowledging the three steps taken by Mansfield in the last three months of her life: Hope that Gurdjieff would accept her at the Prieuré; Faith that the regime and beliefs on offer would help mend her spiritual being and thus her physical body, and Love, because of her profoundly felt emotional ties to the community in Fontainebleau right up until the night of her death. The first section lasts for the month of October, where we see Mansfield in Paris, anxiously awaiting news from the Prieuré that Gurdjieff will allow her to visit, and then hoping she will be accepted as a full time member of the community once she is there. Butler’s sensitivity to Mansfield’s emotions is one of the main features of the novel, as here, for example, the morning after her arrival, when she writes: ‘That is the thing that plagues me and will not let me be. I have spent such a good deal of time alone in the past five years that I do not think I can bear any more’ (26). In this vibrant community of mainly Russians, Mansfield will never be alone again; there is always someone to talk to, things to do, activities to watch. This was, in fact, perhaps Gurdjieff’s greatest gift to Mansfield: allowing her to stay at the Prieuré and be part of a real community of like-minded individuals.
In the second section, Butler takes Mansfield’s life at the Prieuré up to the middle of December 1922, within a month of her death. This is where Mansfield really settles into the daily routines of the community. Her friendships with some of the other residents are brought to life, as is her growing understanding of Gurdjieff’s philosophy. She writes to Murry:
I am so sorry to hear you speak of your life as circumscribed by the four walls of your study […] You know, it isn’t just the physical constraints of such a life, it is the internal slavery, the living in a tiny corner of oneself. Do you like such cramped quarters? Or are you burning somewhere deep inside to make a break for freedom? This, not rapping on the séance table, is the work here. (p. 83).
Butler’s novel shows Mansfield not only understanding the work of the community, but trying desperately to be a part of it, when her strength permits. For of course, it is clear to everyone that ‘Mrs Murry’ does not have long to live. In the final section, it is Christmas – Mansfield’s last – and Butler shows Mansfield relishing the feverish activity around her. The New Year is to bring Murry on a visit, but the events of that fateful day – 9 January – are so well known, that Butler does not try to recreate them. He ends Mansfield’s fictional journal on 8 January, the day before her death, with her recording a dream, firstly of being back in New Zealand watching the early morning mist over Day’s Bay, and then of travelling on a golden road, with a sense of excitement and expectation: “I am home. I know my way. Out of this world I cannot fall’ (177).
The novel is bookended by two brief entries, the first by Murry, and the second by Ida Baker. Both are written many years after Mansfield’s death. Murry, looking back to the events of 1922, leading up to his wife’s death, is still without any comprehension as to why she turned to Gurdjieff: ‘You told me that you were going to Fontainebleau to undertake the Work. I have never understood what you meant. What work, what real work, the vision of which first drew us together, what work that will survive could you possibly have done with Gurdjieff? (p. 5). Ida Baker, more receptive to Mansfield’s needs, recalls seeing her ghost one night when she was working with Murry on some of her papers: ‘Her face was radiant, as though she walked in sunlight, and my spirits were lifted at last’ (p. 181).
In this book, Butler is, of course – as is the case with all of the previous fictionalised novels about Mansfield detailed above – using his biographical subject in order to project his own vision of Mansfield’s life and to tell his story, and a wonderful story it is, too. And as Lackey makes clear, in biofiction, ‘the goal is not to do biography. Rather, it is to use history and biography in order to construct a narrative’. Readers who understand this, and who can distinguish biography from biofiction, will surely be able to sit back and relish Butler’s tale told well.
Book Review by Gerri Kimber
Pierce Butler, A Child of the Sun
(Mount Desert, MA: Beech Hill Publishing, 2016) ISBN: 9780990820086)
Katherine Mansfield Society Newsletter, Issue 25, December 2016