- By Katie Kitamura
- Riverhead Books
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- February 4, 2018
If love is a mystery, divorce is a thriller.
For this dark era of mistrust and alternative facts, there is a brave new literary device: the divorce plot. Instead of the order, harmony, and happily-ever-after that culminates the traditional marriage-plot novel, the divorce plot is fraught with destruction, dissonance, and ambiguity. If every marriage is a cozy mystery, then every divorce is a thriller.
In Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation, a nameless protagonist journeys at the behest of her mother-in-law to the isolated Greek village of Gerolimenas to look for her husband, Christopher. Her mother-in-law, who does not know that the narrator and her husband have been separated for six months, is worried because Christopher isn’t answering her calls.
The narrator agrees to the journey because “I realized then that we needed to formalize the state of affairs between us. I had already decided to ask Christopher for a divorce, I would simply go to Greece and do the deed in person.”
She arrives in the black of night at the luxury hotel where her husband is staying. At the gates, the driver must make his way through a pack of stray dogs who “stood in a ring before the gates, their eyes as yellow as the beams from the taillights.”
The young hotel receptionist is openly hostile to her after she admits to being Christopher’s wife. Christopher is not at the hotel; the staff has not seen him for days.
As one mystery — the whereabouts of Christopher — deepens, another is solved. The marriage has foundered because, as Christopher’s own mother says, “Christopher never could keep his cock in his pants.”
Or, that is the obvious reason. After five years of living up-close-and-personal with the immensely amiable, handsome, and privileged Christopher, the author realizes that “charm is made up of surfaces — every charming man is a confidence man.”
Christopher has come to Greece ostensibly to do research on a book on mourning rituals that is way past its deadline. The narrator is a writer, too, but of a different ilk: She is a translator. “[T]ranslation’s potential for passivity appealed to me.”
And, indeed, she does seem very passive. Even in the face of her husband’s repeated infidelities, she waffles about starting divorce proceedings until pressured to do so by her new boyfriend. She keeps the separation a secret from her in-laws at Christopher’s request. And instead of seeking out the truth, she constantly concocts stories to fill in the blank spaces of events she did not witness.
Those stories inextricably intertwine with actual events, as when she is having a drink on the terrace of the hotel while imagining an assignation between Christopher and the receptionist.
“The waiter gripped the edge of the umbrella and tilted it over my face. It was better, there was shade, it was true that the sun was too bright and I thanked him. He led her by the hand, she walked behind him but urged him to move quickly, the shame if they were caught. The waiter did not move away. There’s nothing to worry about, he said. In that moment, she chose to believe him. She followed him up to his room.”
It is up to the reader to separate the two sticky strands of real and imagined narrative, to be alert to the narrator’s tricks.
This is a chronicle permeated by ambiguity, and the reader begins to wonder if the narrator is dependable, if she doesn’t have something to hide, if she herself is not responsible for what ultimately happens to her husband. In reading, as in marriage, the core relationship is between just two people, the reader and the author, and it is necessarily an unequal one.
The narrator notes, “In the end, what is a relationship but two people, and between two people there will always be room for surprises and misapprehensions, things that cannot be explained. Perhaps another way of putting it is that between two people, there will always be room for failures of imagination.”
While Christopher comes into sharper focus, the narrator never really emerges. We never learn her name, what she looks like, where she’s from. She is defined by her marriage and its failure.
A Separation cannot escape comparison to another novel about a woman emerging from a broken marriage, Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Both are set in Greece, employ divorce plots, and are narrated by smart, sharply observant woman who take great care not to reveal themselves as they observe with an eloquent yet clinical precision the people and the world around them.
Both authors sum up the absurdities and paradoxes of modern life in incisive, powerful prose. But whereas the integrity of Cusk’s narrator is never in doubt, Kitamura’s encourages the reader’s suspicion. It’s a brilliant manipulation as the reader’s evolving relationship with the narrator mirrors the increasing alienation and suspicion of a troubled marriage.
With the propulsive force of a thriller, A Separation ponders the death of a marriage, the enigmatic bond between author and reader, and the imbalance of power of unequal relationships, whether they be literary or romantic.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in Feb. 2017.]
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Independent.