Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation is fraught with sleights and nods. It seems simple, yet throughout the book, Kitamura adds gossamer layers and funhouse mirrors which yield haunting echoes, demanding rereading.
The premise is simple enough: lost spouse. The book’s narrator, spurned on by a call from her mother-in-law, flies to Greece to track down Christopher, her absent husband. He’s a writer whose quirky, rambling first book on the role of music in social gatherings hit big, affording him “the relatively comfortable life that is made available to relatively successful authors,” writing for well-regarded journals and newspapers, presenting his work. His second book, “a study of mourning rituals around the world,” has been a difficult project. Christopher’s travel to Greece, the protagonist decides, was “almost certainly….in order to study its professional mourners, the women who were paid to issue lamentation at funerals.”
Dissonance already. The narrator doesn’t know quite where her husband is because, as the book’s title implies, they haven’t been together for some time. Their separation is a closely guarded secret, though one shared with Yvan, with whom the narrator moves in after three months of Christopher’s absence.
She stays in a Greek hotel as the country smolders with repeated arson. She briefly visits the room once occupied by her husband, askew like Christopher has left in a hurry. The off-season hotel boasts a skeleton staff she knows by name, but hosts few guests save the narrator and a couple — perhaps newlyweds — who paw at each other as if performing for an imagined audience.
The couple and their libido is just one example of Kitamura emphasizing appearances, how they differ from reality both in and out of relationships. The narrator’s curiosity brings her to the house of one of the professional mourners her husband sought: the great-aunt of a hotel driver, who is by consensus the best professional mourner, her caterwauling and wailing sounding the most grieved, the most authentic. Upon introduction, the narrator slips easily into a lie and says that it’s she who’s writing a book on mourning rituals.
And earlier, she mentioned her employment as a translator, in which “you write and do not write the words….people are prone to saying that a successful translation doesn’t feel like a translation at all, as if the translator’s ultimate task is to be invisible.” This urge towards making choices but appearing not to is very much in character with the chasm, ever yawning, between the narrator and her now-estranged husband. But it’s very much out of character with impersonating her husband, of agency and choice.
The press material for A Separation urges readers to read the whole slim volume in one sitting. The request may seem odd, as Kitamura’s prose doesn’t engulf as much as smolder like the ever-present fires that always lurk on her Grecian horizon. Yet around the midway point — and no spoilers here — the reading strategy becomes apparent, then propulsive in its Hitchcockian reorientation. And with this shift comes the realization that the theme of appearance vs. reality is even more present and demanding than first thought.
Is the key the fight between Stefano, the driver whose great-aunt mourns professionally, and Maria, with whom Christopher had an affair? Perhaps. Kitamura expertly excises all dialogue as the couple argues in Greek, leaving the narrator drawing assumptions, and we with her, especially when Maria turns a heated gaze onto the narrator, “as if an actor you have been watching on television suddenly turned to acknowledge you, the spectator.” The fourth wall is broken, and the narrator is quick to tell us as much — but to what end?
Bits of narrative gymnastics continue like this until the book’s conclusion, in which pieces fall together — or not. The narrator laments “the wounds you do not know you do not know about, and the course of which you cannot predict,” leading to pause, to reevaluation before the book’s final silence.
Perhaps itself a lie, or a slip into professional mourning, or perhaps the invisibility of slipping into something already decided, A Separation is a gorgeous treatise of feasibilities and trajectories, of guise and finally of narrative, invention.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Published February 7, 2017
Katie Kitamura is a critic and novelist living in New York City. She is the author of Gone to the Forest and The Longshot, both of which were finalists for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. A recipient of a Lannan Residency Fellowship, Kitamura has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta, BOMB, Triple Canopy and is a regular contributor to Frieze.