Greg and Erika Read…A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

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A Separation, a new novel by Katie Kitamura out this week, is an incredibly well-written, “introspective thriller” about a failed marriage. Erika and I both loved it!

Erika made it her pick of the week this week. She says:

With this quietly powerful novel about the end of a marriage, Kitamura establishes herself as not only a perceptive observer of human feelings, but a writer of real emotional range and depth.  Our narrator has mostly moved on from her marriage to a charismatic but flawed man…but when her estranged husband goes missing, she travels there to find him, and in the process, confronts her own complicated feeling about their relationship.  Kitamura manages to strike a balance between thoughtful introspection and coolly-removed examination of a sad event, and the result feels fresh, precised and above all, memorable.

I couldn’t agree more about Kitamura being a perceptive observer, and a writer with real range. These were two of my favorite aspects of this novel, as well. Here are my thoughts:

Katie Kitamura’s novel about a failed marriage isn’t like Gone Girl or any of the other tent poles of the recent entries into the “bad romance” genre. This is a wholly unique take on this type of novel, and it’s really terrific.

A Separation is a slow-burning, introspective, and incredibly astutely observed look at a relationship that has gone sour. It’s the story of an unnamed narrator and her husband Christopher, Londoners who have separated, ostensibly due to Christopher’s multiple infidelities.

Christopher has gone to Greece to work on a book, and then promptly disappeared. Christopher’s mother Isabel — a domineering, annoying woman who never warmed to the narrator because she “stole” her son — calls our narrator and asks her to go to Greece to find Christoper. Isabel doesn’t know the two have separated, and the narrator chooses to keep that secret.

So to keep up appearances, off to Greece she goes to find her soon-to-be-ex-husband. While she’s there, she begins to slowly reconsider her separation — or at least try to better parse her feelings for it and for Christopher, now that they’re even more separated than they were before. She literally has no idea where he is — didn’t even know he’d gone to Greece. What’s happened to him? Will she find him? Has he taken even more extraordinary means than are usually necessary to separate himself from her? Or is he just on another tawdry tryst?

Part of what makes this novel special is that it’s a novel about ambiguity, but told in language so precise and carefully chosen. Kitamura is an amazingly talented writer — her narrator can spend several pages watching a conversation between two people, describing their facial expressions and cadence, and tell us what she thinks they’re talking about. And it’s fascinating! But again, this is not a novel you’ll confuse with a thriller. Watching the introspection, watching her her puzzle things out as best she can with incomplete, indeed, ambiguous information is truly the strength of this great read.

Despite the commonality of failed relationships, this is also a novel about subverting what’s normal, what’s expected. To further this notion, the narrator tells a brief story about a friend who went on a date with a man she really liked. At the end of the night, he invites her up “for coffee.” Instead of inventing an excuse, she tells him she can’t because she’s on her period, which is actually true. On the surface, it’s a hilarious non-sequitur. But everyone knows coffee doesn’t mean coffee — only her friend has subverted the purposeful ambiguity of what it means to be invited up for coffee. The guy never calls her back.

It’s little touches like these that makes this a really terrific reading experience. There is a lot going on in this slim, taut novel, many themes (grief, loyalty, and whether monogamy is still pragmatic) intersect and augment each other. It’s a savagely smart and masterfully crafted novel — very highly recommended.

(Note: My post first appeared on my book blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)

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About Greg Zimmerman

In life, as in literature, Greg Zimmerman (@newdorkreview) enjoys a nice mix of the high- and the low-brow. He writes (and uses too-frequent parentheticals) about books at his blog, The New Dork Review of Books. Greg's day job is as a trade magazine editor, and he slings books part time at RoscoeBooks.
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