The name Christopher appears on almost every single page of Katie Kitamura’s captivating novel, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that would make him the central character. He isn’t. What he is instead is a Godot-esque spectre looming over the Greek landscape in which our narrator finds herself.
The narrator has gone to a small, remote region in Greece at her mother-in-law’s behest to find her husband, though they have separated and not told anyone. Once there, she finds Christopher’s presence: the remains of an affair, stories told by taxi drivers, but not much else. So much power does Christopher have over the narrative, that our central character does not even get a name. Her identity is kept hidden as though she is unsure of it. She has not asked her husband for a divorce, and works in translation – as such, both her relationship and her cultural identity are caught between two worlds.
A Separation is a beautiful novel. Not solely in its writing, though that in itself is brilliant. Kitamura has such a sad, melancholic voice that you often find yourself surprised by just how funny the novel can be. There’s a horrible streak of black humour that runs through the book – most clearly seen in a central scene in which the narrator takes her former husband’s mistress out for dinner and gets angry when she orders the most expensive item on the menu. It seems apt then that when we hear of Christopher’s research (he has come to the region to write a book on mourning practises) it is around the concept of weepers: actors who can be hired by funeral parties to express grief on their behalf. The narrator feels she should not be allowed to mourn the collapse of her relationship, it is not yet over, and so she surrounds herself with others who have felt his loss instead (the dumped mistress).
Kitamura also excels in the small details. This is a novel that takes place very much inside the narrator’s head. We have a tight, almost claustrophobic view from her on all aspects of the small community she finds herself in. Not speaking the language, we often see arguments from the outside, unable to penetrate their deeper meaning. A discussion between two hotel staff becomes an intimate, though unfathomable, series of hand gestures and body reactions. Looks between passengers and taxi drivers appear to tell us so much more than we thought. It makes for an oddly intimate novel which has within it no intimacy at all.
If it isn’t clear by now, A Separation is an absolutely essential read. Katie Kitamura’s third novel is a remarkable book. In many ways, given the subject matter of the ending of a relationship, it has much in common with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love (though they remain very different novels for many reasons), and in many ways it joins that book as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
Any Cop? Yes, yes, yes.