MARCH 6, 2017
CEREBRAL FEMALE NARRATORS traveling alone, contemplating their lives and marriages against the backdrop of a foreign land, are not an unfamiliar motif in contemporary fiction — think Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. What’s striking about these “travel” books is that they aren’t really travel books at all, with their prioritization of intellect and consciousness over exotic locale. They create coolly analytical emotional landscapes that result in a certain amount of distance, a remove, between narrator and narrative.
Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation is a one-sided story of a marriage that fits comfortably into this tradition. Kitamura’s unnamed narrator travels to a remote part of southern Greece in search of her husband, Christopher, who’s gone missing. That may sound like a romantic journey, but this narrator is not one to fall prey to romantic folly (she refers to marriage as a “crazed wager”), and her prevailing sense of alienation is reflected by the desolate Greek landscape, recently ravaged by wildfire, in which the novel is set. In fact, when her mother-in-law Isabella calls and demands that she make the trip, the narrator agrees only so she can ask Christopher for a divorce.
She goes rather than tell Isabella the truth, that she and Christopher separated six months earlier, because she’s promised Christopher not to tell anyone about their separation:
Our last conversation had been on the telephone. Christopher had said that although we were clearly not going to be reconciled, he did not want to begin the process — he used that word, indicative of some continuous and ongoing thing, rather than a decisive and singular act and of course he was right, divorce was more organic, somehow more contingent than it initially appeared — of telling people.
She agreed to Christopher’s terms, but now the phone call from her mother-in-law highlights the precariousness of her suspended situation and heightens the need for resolution, as she is unable to refuse the responsibilities of wife and daughter-in-law.
Kitamura garnered praise for her ability to write male characters in her two previous novels, The Longshot and Gone to the Forest. With this, her third novel, she turns to a female narrator, seamlessly inhabiting her consciousness and all its complexities in an evocative portrayal of a self-effacing and thoroughly ambivalent woman. Kitamura largely restricts her narrative to the inner life and thought processes of a first-person narrator in a way that verges on claustrophobic. That she is able to maintain an element of suspense while doing so is testament to her narrative prowess.
Once the narrator reaches the village where Christopher has been staying, her decision to ask for a divorce loses its urgency. Christopher isn’t around, and she’s initially happy to wait in the comfort of the hotel. She finds solace in this in-between phase, her decision made but not yet carried out, a period of calm before she has to deal with the consequences. But when Christopher doesn’t turn up, she finds herself performing the role of dutiful wife even though she no longer feels she can claim the title. In this foreign place, Christopher is more and more a stranger to her; A Separation, finally, is a book-long meditation on the utter unknowability of another person, on the mysteriousness of marriage.
Christopher’s absence lies at the heart of the novel, informing its every twist and turn. It’s as if the narrator is always one step behind him, he lurking off-stage, a shape-shifting, larger-than-life presence. That Christopher was unfaithful is disclosed early on, yet the narrator claims infidelity was not the primary reason for the failure of their marriage. She acknowledges the imbalance of knowledge and power it implies, however: “Our marriage,” she says, “was formed by the things Christopher knew and the things I did not.” Christopher’s physical body having disappeared, she’s left to sift through fragments of memory and try to piece together a narrative of their marriage. And, from its dissolution, form a new sense of self, now that she no longer claims the label of wife.
The separation referred to in the title is, of course, the separation between husband and wife, but more crucially, it’s a separation of self from self: old self from new self, old identity from new identity. And perhaps this separation is what allows her to remain at an emotional distance from the events that unfold. There’s a cool, analytical quality to her gaze as she observes the people around her. Kitamura’s prose is similarly matter of fact: direct, plain, and precise. It gets its point across with little ambiguity, with little in the way of flowery metaphor. Yet the prose’s oddly hypnotic rhythm, its use of sentence fragments and run-on sentences, has a subtle sway and a pleasing way of engaging the reader.
And it’s this rhythm that makes it easy to be drawn in by the narrator’s constant conjectures as she fabricates a narrative on top of reality, layering her own meaning on top of what’s happening — imagining, for example, the affair she believes Christopher must have had with Maria, a woman working at the hotel. One of the most powerful, striking scenes in the novel is her extended observation of Maria with another man, Stefano. While she can’t understand their conversation (they’re speaking Greek), she imagines its context:
Now Stefano was speaking in a low and urgent tone. Maria was listening in sullen silence, eyes averted, he should have known better than to lecture her in that way, I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I recognized the hectoring tone all too well, he was patronizing her without being aware of it.
She describes Maria’s face as “too expressive,” and the passion in the exchange between Maria and Stefano acts as an externalization of the passion the narrator can’t seem to feel herself, the passion she and Christopher seemingly lack.
The narrator prefers to engage in the limitless domain of fantasy, rather than ask hard questions that might get at real answers. The depths of her passivity are occasionally maddening, as she avoids conflict and skirts around the truth. She’s not unaware of this tendency in herself: she admits it is the “potential for passivity” in her job as a translator that appeals to her. In this, Christopher seems like her opposite. Far from invisible, he’s a charmer (at least as described by the narrator), someone who takes up space with his presence. Translation is far too unassertive an occupation for him; he’s an ambitious writer, working on a book about mourning rituals around the world, “a strange project,” the narrator muses, “for a man who had hitherto lost nothing of significance, whose life was intact in all its key particulars.”
Although it’s Christopher who is technically absent, in some ways he seems more present in the narrative, taking up more space, than the narrator herself. We learn a fair amount about him, but surprisingly little about the narrator: her name is never revealed, nor is her family discussed. The only hint the reader gets of her physical appearance is through opposition, through what she is not, when she observes that Maria is her “physical opposite,” with her “heavy brow and long black hair” and “the kind of body that intrigued men,” a body “whose purpose was clear.” The purpose of the narrator’s body, in contrast, is “sometimes too opaque.”
The narrator assumes Christopher came to Greece to study its professional mourners. These women are hired to display emotions in place of the bereaved, lamenting publicly for those who cannot. Not entirely unlike the narrator, these women are playing a part. Christopher described it as a literal “out-of-body experience,” where the bereaved “are completely liberated from the need to emote.” It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the mourners and the narrator. As she becomes increasingly fixated on the woman she believes to be her husband’s lover, observing Maria’s emotional responses to Christopher’s continued absence, it’s as though Maria’s emotions liberate her from having to experience any grief of her own. “I felt a surge of relief,” she says. “I did not envy her the tumult of feeling, the jealousy and uncertainty, she evidently did not know whether to feel outraged or ashamed.”
The weighing of multiple possibilities and the sentence fragments piling up on sentence fragments serve to break down the authority of truth in a quietly subversive way. It also breaks down the authority of the narrator’s husband, no longer present, with no voice of his own, and the power he has over her. But the narrator’s separation, of old self from new self, of self from emotion, ultimately breaks down, as she is unable to sustain the narrative she has created for herself. She is gradually forced to come to terms with Christopher’s infidelity, a truth she’s been unwilling to acknowledge for many years, until the fiction becomes “no longer sustainable or believable.” What emerges is a portrait of what happens when truth is denied and buried and confrontation avoided until it becomes an almost bodily denial, until the self is nearly erased, until it becomes too late. And in this, the book is a chilling portrait of barely acknowledged grief masquerading as emotional coldness.
A woman searching to understand the puzzle that is marriage, the narrator both intimately knows and does not know her husband. She is surprised and not surprised by what she learns. The power of the novel is built through accumulation, exploring mysteries that are not neatly solvable in a way that’s true to life. Maybe other people, even someone you’re married to, will always be a bit of a mystery, will always retain the capability of surprising you. Maybe that’s what makes them lovable.
In performing the role of wife, in confronting the truth of infidelity, the narrator increasingly fulfills her part, seemingly able to at last embody and come to terms with the emotions she’d been avoiding, or at least come closer to them. And what she realizes is that the veneer separating a performance from the thing itself is a thin one indeed.