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a separation

20 february 2022

Katie Kitamura has now published four novels. The first, The Longshot, is a sport novel; the second Gone to the Forest, is dystopian and symbolic. Or so I gather. Being me I read the latest one first (Intimacies), and, impressed, I sought out her third and best-known book, A Separation. Kitamura's latter two novels both have contemporary "general" settings; both about relationships, intellectual work, and the dangers and rewards of making contact across cultures and languages.

The set-up for A Separation seems so contrived that even the narrator exclaims that it seems "extraordinary to me, even now" (5). The narrator is separated from her husband Christopher, has even begun a new relationship with a man called Yvan. But she has not told her in-laws, or anybody but Yvan really, about the separation. Neither she nor Christopher tell anybody. So when Christopher travels from their home in London to a remote village in Greece and drops off the radar, his mother Isabella calls the narrator to find out what's up. The narrator has no idea. So she flies to Greece and goes straight to his hotel, only to find that Christopher had stayed there and subsequently vanished.

OK, though. The adage being what it is, many true stories stranger than this fictional one have doubtless occurred. Once the narrator gets to Greece, you just accept the situation and follow how she processes the situation. There is not much plot to A Separation, which unwinds in slow tableaux, heavily surrounded by the narrator's trying to piece together what she observes – some of which takes place in Greek, all of which takes place in a culture where she's an outsider.

Christopher has won the affection of a local woman named Maria, and a local man named Stefano has a crush on Maria, so there's a triangle to decipher. The narrator should form the apex of a mirroring triangle, but she is merely curious about Maria's relationship to her (still) husband – the narrator seems truly "over" Christopher, though narrators are notoriously unreliable and for someone really over a relationship, she spends a lot of time reflecting on this one.

Halfway through the plot takes an abrupt, disorienting turn and then slows again to its original pace. I won't spoil how. As in her later Intimacies, Kitmaura is very good at depicting how people try to make sense of the network of personal connections around them. Though it is always a futile task. There's just one of you and there are billions of other people, and you cannot be close enough even to the handful you're interested in to know much about what goes on among them. Fiction may be the only way to explore this murky aspect of being human.

Kitamura, Katie. A Separation. New York: Riverhead [Penguin Random House], 2017. PS 3611 .I877S47