“The Woman at the Store” is one of Katherine Mansfield’s early stories and does not reveal many of the features of her later great tales: extreme subtlety, indirection, tenuous but magical symbolism, impersonation of characters, total mastery of detail and of voice. It is, on the contrary, a straight piece of flatly narrated realism. The narrator herself and Jim are given virtually no personality; all is subsumed by the surface details of travel and encounter with the woman, related with nearly journalistic precision. Indeed, one powerful effect in the tale is achieved when the two learn that the woman is a murderer; understatement prevails, and the characters react almost not at all, expressing no feelings whatsoever. However, it is to be inferred that their response is considerable; Mansfield’s employment of indirection here is quite effective.
Best of all, stylistically, are touches of tone and color and atmosphere that presage the coming of a master of the twentieth century short story. Often Mansfield’s choice of words is exquisitely appropriate, and her effects are accomplished with the seemingly easy hand of the professional. Such achievement, for example, is clearly evident even in the story’s opening paragraph: All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground—it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces, settled and sifted over us like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies. The horses stumbled along, coughing and chuffing.
The story is a masterful display, a surprising performance by a very talented young beginner.