Rupert Thomson’s latest novel comes emblazoned with more big author names than any book could possibly shoulder (we hear from the likes of Philip Pullman, Anne Enright Jonathan Lethem, Lionel Shriver, Richard Flanagan, Deborah Moggach and James Salter) – but the fact is Katherine Carlyle does shoulder them, and then some. To the extent that this reader would go out on a limb and say this is, quite possibly, Rupert Thomson’s best novel so far. Now, in case you think I’m damning with faint praise, I want you to know that I’ve read and highly rate The Insult, Soft, The Book of Revelation, Divided Kingdom, Death of a Murderer and Secrecy a great deal. And there are parts of Katherine Carlyle that hark back in many ways to some of those earlier books (it’s strange and unnerving like The Insult, certainly, and it unravels much like Secrecy in the sense that you follow a character as she explores the world of the novel, a world that is paranoid and threatened, at times), as if this is a greatest hits; if you’ve read Thomson’s nonfiction, This Party’s Got to Stop, you’ll see some of Thomson’s own biography in the eponymous title character – like her, he has lived all over the world (Berlin, Rome), like her he lost his mother at a young age, like her, he is no stranger to estrangement.
But you don’t need to have read any of his earlier books, or know anything about Thomson to get a massive kick out of this book. We are introduced to Katherine (or Kit as she is sometimes known) as she waits to be born, one of a batch of potential IVF babies, the one, we later learn, strong enough to be born. She is held, after being made, frozen for eight years, and it’s possible she views this as a kind of crime, as parental neglect warranting punishment of some kind. Katherine Carlyle could be viewed from some angles as a daughter’s revenge upon her father. Later in the book, as she makes her way about Berlin, she sees her father, a TV reporter, on a dozen TV screens and feels as if she has been waiting for this moment, “the way a bullet waits in its chamber, cold and snug.” There is a connection to be made between that frozen IVF baby and the girl who waits like a bullet. She has been living in Rome, and for months has been receiving messages of sorts, abstractions that she imbues with meaning.
She leaves Rome, dropping her phone in the water, leaving behind a scholarship to Oxford, all of her friends. She pursues a man she knows nothing about. Grows bored. Latches on to another man – except perhaps latch is too strong a word – and then another. She is a spy without purchase. She observes the world. She moves about. She remembers – her childhood, her mother, her father. There is a puzzle that quite possibly she herself does not have the answer to. She’s looking for something. She wonders whether her father would hire a detective to find her, wonders what she would say, how she would explain.
“My answers make no sense to him. but then, why would they? I can’t tell him the truth. It’s too overwhelming and too fragile.”
She is partially a detective herself, investigating herself. At times, she is “like a detective trying to solve a crime that has yet to be committed”; another time, her “disappearance is like a crime without a motive”. “If I’m to pay proper attention,” she tells us, “if this is to work, there’s no option but to disconnect, to simplify.”
“That’s what life is like now. I hold myself in a constant state of readiness. Every occasion – every moment – trembles with a sense of opportunity. I have no idea where the next communication will come from, but I know that one will come…”
We follow and, like her father we would assume (although we don’t have to assume, Katherine imagines her father’s journey in her footsteps for us), we try to understand her (and one wonders if that is how the book was written, Thomson, troubled by this vision of a young woman, trying to understand her as she slips and flits ahead of us, knowing things that she doesn’t always share).
“…imagine you’re in a foreign city and you go to a movie and you get lost in it. At the end, when you walk out of the cinema, it’s not the city from the movie, and it’s not the city you’re used to either, not the city you know, it’s somewhere else.”
Later in the book, she imagines her father in the arms of a waitress, he wakes and doesn’t remember where he is, this sense of forgetting and remembering, the two intermingled like woodsmoke. The sense of the book as a puzzle reasserts itself. Like, say, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, though, you don’t necessarily need answers and you read without needing them.
If you wonder whether this is one of those arty books that slips by without a kind of resolution, or without a sturdy narrative arc, you can also relax – there is a resolution of sorts at the climax. The end serves to complete the journey you and she have taken together. “It’s a one-way ticket,” yes, “a permanently ebbing tide”, but for all that, it’s slick and sophisticated and quietly thrilling.
Any Cop?: A truly terrific novel that deserves a much, much wider readership.