A Separation by Katie Kitamura review – a smart study of upper-class alienation

From the glamour of Glyndebourne to murder in Greece – a woman’s intriguing quest to find the husband who divorced her

Katie Kitamura’s first novel, The Longshot, was set in the closed, masculine universe of martial arts, while her second, Gone to the Forest, was a fable of destruction set in an allegorical, unnamed country. This third novel also takes place in an attenuated world stiff with custom: that of the English upper classes and their sorrowful literary offspring.

Here, everyone lives in the same neighbourhood, attends Glyndebourne and a round of dinner parties, and there are neither politics nor bills. Jobs have atrophied – publishers commission books with no deadlines – and so have gender roles. Our narrator accepts that a mother with three children is ipso facto “always in need of help and companionship”; that men only “achieve a little privacy [on] the shores of infidelity”; and that sex while menstruating is quite impossible.

In this decorous world, the older generation are of Confucian importance: organising the opera excursions; owning the apartments; handing out the money. Thus, when the narrator’s husband, Christopher, abruptly decides to divorce her and asks her not to tell anyone, this seems to mean primarily his parents. For the narrator herself has already moved on, and moved in, with one of their friends, so surely the dinner party circuit has noticed. She takes the request extremely seriously, however, to the point where, when she is ordered by her mother-in-law to go to the Peloponnese to look for Christopher, missing on a research trip, keeping her silence is her main preoccupation.

The narrator surely counts, even in such enervated circles, as a peculiarly submissive character. She announces no name, friends, children, parents or even wishes of her own. She has chosen the profession of translator because of its “potential for passivity”. She accepts the mission to Greece as meekly as she accepts Christopher’s rejection, as she has also accepted, it emerges, over the course of their five-year marriage, his compulsive infidelities, open disregard and predilection for threesomes.

Katie Kitamura
Accomplished … Katie Kitamura Photograph: PR

Outwardly, that is. The narrator’s inner monologue is a stream of dark thoughts, bubbling over into crowded run-on sentences. She is priggish and disdainful about her mother-in-law: “I did not take her concern with much seriousness. Isabella believed her relationship with Christopher to be better than it was, a natural response for a mother to make, but one which led to occasionally outlandish behaviour on her part.” She is sly and sour about Christopher: “The next woman, there would always be a next, with a man like Christopher.” And about that next woman, Maria, she is juicily, whole-heartedly malicious: “Perhaps now, as she sucked the meat out of the lobster’s claw, her chin growing slick with butter, she was reliving her own seduction.”

But she seems unable to voice any of this aloud. However clear she is in her head – and she spends many pages on abstract ideas as well as judgments of person – when her turn comes to speak, her inner drips of self-doubt become a torrent and overwhelm her. She can’t work out the protocol of conversations; she can’t work out how much feeling she is allowed – and does being married make a quantitative difference? She can’t work out how even her own body functions in the outer world: “The purposes … were sometimes too opaque: there had been many moments when its discreet parts – legs, arms, torso – made no sense even to me.” She does occasionally flame into excitement, clear prose and confident feeling, but it is always vicariously and when emotion is being expressed at a performative distance: when she watches a traditional mourning singer perform grief, or when she is checking out the porn on Christopher’s computer.

This alienation is very much of the literary moment. As the narrator wanders musingly around the portent-stuffed resort, you sometimes wonder if she is a pastiche of Lydia Davis taking a nasty holiday in a Deborah Levy novel. But it makes her miserable, unable to get on with her relationship with her new man, Yvan, who is by some distance the warmest and most natural character in the book.

It also makes her a useless detective. In Greece, she can’t bear to ask direct questions, and even when a murder plot worthy of Inspector Montalbano lays itself out plainly before her, complete with dim policemen, Mediterranean sexual stereotypes, dirt roads and prickly pears, she worries too much to reveal it – a decision that takes her, and us, to “the opposite of closure”.

Above all, with its Greek setting and divorce theme, A Separation evokes Rachel Cusk’s Outline. The narrators of both books struggle with imaginative sympathy: both gaze at the people around them from a puzzled distance, wondering at their actions. Cusk’s Faye, though, seems to have despaired of trying to explain other people, and, with radical humility, to have given herself over to recording them, being their “outline” instead. The narrator of A Separation, by contrast, does nothing but explain, her prissy, pinioning voice speaking for and around the other characters; reporting their speech; commenting on their actions, barely allowing them air. She barely allows us air, either, anxiously filling any space in our thoughts with her lengthy meditations and portentous conclusions. Some of these seem much too true – “There is a reason why the dead haunt the living, the living cannot haunt the living in the same way” – and some not nearly true enough: “Perhaps all deaths are unresolved.”

In the end, Kitamura’s protagonist is a smart, accomplished, contemporary version of that ancient literary figure, the unreliable narrator, whereas Faye is a new invention. You finish Outline feeling uncannily lonely and opened; A Separation leaves you intrigued, impressed, but also artfully irritated.

•Kate Clanchy’s The Not-Dead and the Saved is published by Picador. A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Profile. To order a copy for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Kate Clanchy

The GuardianTramp

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