A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Profile)

The premise of A Separation, Katie Kitamura’s third novel, could be made to sound like a literary thriller. I don’t mean the winding, psychological twisters currently in vogue, such as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. Think the enigmatic “god games” played in John Fowles’ 1965 novel The Magus, only without the baffling plot, dodgy interracial pornography and restless rewrites.

Like The Magus, A Separation begins when a bright, young­ish thing swaps England for Greece, and an atmos­phere heavy with paranoia, death and a growing sense that reality is not to be trusted. In Kitamura’s case, the main player is an unnamed American woman who has been sent to find her recently vanished husband, Christopher.

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And whereas Fowles’ evocation of the island of Phraxos was wildly, even self-consciously decadent (there are allusions to Lord Byron’s ennui and psychosexual exploits), Kitamura’s setting is quieter and more considered. Her backdrop is arid, her story driven not by mind-bending erotic intrigues but by legal considerations of what it means to be married.

If this makes A Separation sound a chilly proposition, then it owes something to our narrator, who proves herself a natural-born observer. In arguably the novel’s finest set piece, she watches as three of the island’s inhabitants act out a kind of love triangle. Unable to understand what is being said, she fills in the gaps to her own satisfaction, although we never entirely discover how correct her suppositions are.

Her cool, intellectual assurance suffuses everything, from the elegant but stately prose to the clipped, even brusque response to the narrative’s central tragedy: her husband’s murder by person or persons unknown. “Christopher’s body was found in a shallow ditch outside one of the villages inland, ten miles from the stone church I had visited the previous day.” Such matter-of-factness does not mean our speaker is unfeeling, or not exactly, but reflects her circumstances: a strange emotional netherworld between love and its opposite.

Kitamura is less concerned with the whys of the separation than the existential consequences

For, as the title hints, she has already been separated from Christopher for some months before he is killed. Further information is drip-fed to the reader: she has moved in with Yvan, a friend of her husband, who has been pressing her to seek a divorce. The couple’s holding pattern originates with Christopher (or so the narrator tells us), who asks his estranged wife to keep their split secret for an unspecified period. The awkward request can be explained by his English tendency to embarrassment, but it does feel like a matter of plot convenience. It is not love, worry or even guilt that drives her to Greece to search for Christopher. Instead, when she receives a worried phone call from his mother, Isabella, it is her collusion in the fiction of their continued marriage – in the role of the loyal wife – that makes her board the plane.

The mutual deception helps Kitamura trace one of her central themes: lying as an act of creative invention that beguiles both self and others. “[We] had not figured out how to tell the story of our separation,” our narrator notes, with what proves to be a characteristic nod to her status as a proxy novelist. Conveniently she is a translator by trade, with its accompanying motifs of adaptation, fidelity and, of course, their opposites: “Traduttore, traditore” goes the old Italian saying: “The translator is a betrayer.” Christopher’s vocation as a writer exhibits a similar expediency. His death is foreshadowed, also a little neatly, by the book about funeral rites he is singularly failing to complete: his visit to the Greek island was prompted by a desire to witness the professional mourners who lament the recently deceased.

Kitamura is less concerned with the whys of the separation (even Christopher’s mother pegs him as a serial philanderer who cannot “keep his c**k in his pants”) than the existential consequences. What grief does a soon-to-be ex-wife owe her dead but not quite ex-husband? The narrator’s fastidiousness in drawing these distinctions is not for its own sake, but reflects the challenge of living in a space of constant liminal uncertainty between marriage and divorce. In case the moral implications escape you, they come to a head in arguably the novel’s most overt moral dilemma, when our narrator learns she will inherit £3 million (HK$28.3 million) from her estranged other half. Would you accept, Kitamura asks?

A Separation is perhaps easier to admire than love. Kitamura is a highly intelligent writer, sensitive to the micro-possibilities of the world she painstakingly creates. Themes and ideas drop elegantly like clues in a highbrow crime story. What connects these individual tropes into a thought-provoking pattern is that fertile title. At once a noun that describes a completed act and an on-going action (a “separating”), it prompts the reader to detect gaps both great and small throughout the text: death, geography, travel, language, history, culture, even the Greek civil war fulfil the defining brief.

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Separations of a less solid variety characterise Kitamura’s relatively small cast, whose sole point of union is behaving contrary to their avowed aims. This makes for a largely unlikable, if unmistakably human bunch. Christopher’s grief-stricken but upright father, Mark, falls back on racial stereotypes in his desire to apportion blame to any Greek he encounters. Isabella’s mourning veers from rage against her son to suspicion about the state of his marriage. Our narrator jousts with Maria, a hotel receptionist who admits defiantly to sleeping with Christopher, a state of affairs complicated again by our knowledge that he was married in name only.

A Separation is extremely impressive in its cerebral way. It reminds the reader of Vendela Vida’sThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, which toyed cosmically with a (female) fish out of water, albeit in funnier and stranger fashion. Kitamura’s thematic complexity makes for an engaging, even gripping read, without ever quite disturbing one’s reservoir of emo­tions. This, of course, may be her point: that a culture in thrall to overthinking, self-analysis and social convention has separated the individual from their ability to feel.

In this, the narrator’s philosophical self-possession contrasts vividly with the elderly professional mourner who rouses herself into genuine passion at the drop of a hat. “She agreed to undergo suffering, in the place of others,” our narrator concludes of her catharsis. Like all serious art, A Separation does something similar. It’s just a question of figuring out to what end.