Reviewed by Marina Sofia
It is easier to tell you what A Separation is not, rather than what it is. It is not a mystery, although a disappearance features quite heavily. It is not a psychological thriller, although we delve deep into the central character’s psychology. It is not a romance, although there is a relationship breakdown and jealousy and a new relationship hesitantly forming. Neither is it an experimental piece of fiction, as it does have a reasonably conventional structure, even a plot. Perhaps we can call it a novel of rumination: every action, every person encountered provokes a wealth of reflection and analysis in the unnamed narrator, like a pebble being thrown into a pond and creating interminable ripples.
The narrator is an American woman in her mid-30s who has been separated from her English husband Christopher for six months. They have been trying to keep this separation secret from most of their acquaintances, above all from his parents. So it’s a surprise and shock for the narrator when her mother-in-law calls to say that Christopher appears to have gone missing on his research trip to the Peloponnese. Unwilling and unable to explain the situation to her in-laws, she decides to set off to Greece to find her husband, if only to announce that she wants a divorce. Once she gets to the luxury hotel in a landscape ravaged by forest fires on the arid Mani peninsula, she finds out that her husband has disappeared unexpectedly, leaving everything behind in his room, and also leaving an indelible impression on the hotel staff, especially a young, curvy receptionist named Maria.
In this postmodern crime novel, everyone seems oddly uninterested in finding out what happened to Christopher, although there are rumours. Mani has always been a poor area of Greece, with its stony soil and hardened, flint-like people, and some of this resilience or hardness seems to have afflicted the main character as well. But then, after five years of marriage with a serial philanderer, perhaps her senses have been numbed and she is relieved to see the back of him. What follows is the dissection of a flawed marriage:
Our marriage was formed by the things Christopher knew and the things I did not. This was not simply a question of intellect… It was a question of things withheld, information that he had, and that I did not. In short, it was a question of infidelities – betrayal always puts one partner in the position of knowing, and leaves the other in the dark.
The narrator is so negative about Christopher now, that it is hard to see what attracted them to each other in the first place, although she assures us she was ‘smug and unimaginative’ with happiness in the early stages. This has certainly changed and her travels through Greece are full of imagination and anxiety: she imagines the seduction scene between the voluptuous Maria and her husband; she ‘translates’ the conversation between Maria and her boyfriend, although she doesn’t speak a word of Greek; she imagines what might have happened to her husband and how the police might suspect her. She frets and analyses everything half to death.
The reader is constantly in the narrator’s head, and this can become an uncomfortable place, for there is much darkness to make us suspicious and potentially irritate us. This is someone who is fully aware of the flaws of the people around her, who makes witty, cutting observations but does not dare to voice them. There is a strange detachment to her: she is far too cool, far too analytical, as if she is afraid to allow herself to feel, which is obvious also in her tentative relationship with the new man in her life, Yvan. She seems to protest a little too much at the guilt she feels over misleading her in-laws about the separation, over the money she receives from them.
If she comes across as an arrogant and passive-aggressive snob, Christopher also comes across as a feckless dilettante, whose charm and talent are both only skin-deep. The couple have been successful at avoiding things in their professional life: she is a translator, because of its ‘potential for passivity’, while he has been milking the fame from the unexpected success of his first book and procrastinating for years on his second. This avoidance strategy has also coloured their personal lives. Both come across as people who would rather muddle through or dissect a matter to death purely theoretically rather than act.
… and so, although I remained at the hotel in order to ask Christopher for a divorce, I found that I was in no hurry to confront him, I had made a decision which I believed to be absolute, and yet I could have sat in the sun for days, for weeks, without moving, without doing anything, without speaking a word.
And yet, as circumstances change and her in-laws join her in Greece, it dawns upon her that her own perception of the marriage and the part she played within it has subtly changed too. Present realities cast their shadows upon the past and change it, for “the past is subject to all kinds of revision… the past cannot be relied upon, the ground gives.”
Uncannily similar in feel to Rachel Cusk’s Outline, but more introspective rather than descriptive, this is the kind of novel I would describe as ‘thought-driven’ or cerebral. However, we are never allowed to stray too far from the narrator’s filtered view of the world, so I would hesitate to call it a novel of ideas. We never rise above the aphorisms and occasional platitudes that the narrator feeds herself:
The figure that beckons from a previous life… can be uncannily persuasive. There is a reason why the living are haunted by the dead, the living cannot haunt the living in the same way.
The emulation became the thing itself, in the end there was not that much difference between the grief of a wife and the grief of an ex-wife…
Cusk has been accused of writing about the ‘chattering classes’, and this book is likewise about a privileged, well-educated couple, who have the time and budget to travel to Greece and explore the meaning of the end of their relationship. So look elsewhere if you want a greater breadth of experience. Yet with its smaller canvas and on its own terms it undoubtedly works, demonstrating a ferocious honesty about the lies we tell ourselves so that we may convince others.
Marina Sofia blogs at Finding Time to Write.
Katie Kitamura, A Separation (Clerkenwell Press, 2017). 978-1781256589, 239pp., hardback.
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