Reviewed by Eleanor Franzén
Are there ghosts at either end of life?
It’s not uncommon, from time to time, to feel as though everything about your life is being orchestrated in some way. You meet someone’s eye on a train, and it’s significant; everything from the music in your headphones to the advert on the walls confirms it. Your whole life, somehow, has been building to this. It’s not about falling in love. It’s about the sense of arriving at a destination, even if you don’t quite understand what the destination is, or why you’re meant to be there.
Katherine Carlyle—Kit—knows exactly how you feel.
Her whole life has been an uncertainty. Created for IVF purposes, she was frozen as an embryo for eight years before her parents decided to try conceiving. Those lost years—nearly a decade where she neither existed nor didn’t exist, a kind of prenatal Schrodinger’s Cat—have haunted her all her life. Now, at eighteen, her mother is dead of cancer and her foreign correspondent father is emotionally absent as well as physically not around very much. They live in Rome. She has a full scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford, and is meant to be starting in the autumn, but she has other plans.
It might be fairer to say that she feels life has other plans for her. Kit may appear to be a very active, dynamic character, but she only ever acts in ways that she believes to be inevitable, fated. She never uses the word destiny, but her conviction in her own destiny shapes her story absolutely. There’s no twee meta-awareness (no ‘What if I were a character in a book?’ malarkey), but she knows, deep inside, that she is following a narrative arc. We may wonder whether she’s deluded, but we are drawn along by the strength of her belief. The catalyst for her flight from ‘normal life’ comes when she attends a movie and overhears a couple talking about their mutual friend, a man who lives in Berlin:
I keep thinking about Klaus Frings and his apartment in Berlin. The inexplicable shock of recognition when I heard his name. The sense of being summoned, singled out. The sudden disappearance of my heart, as if it had been sucked into a black hole at the centre of my body. There have been so many dry runs and dress rehearsals but I knew that sooner or later one of the messages would feel right. And now, finally, it does.
That conviction combines with the fact that she is obviously very beautiful (although, much to my relief, she doesn’t tell us this, and never dwells on it too much; we infer it, and we also infer that she finds it as much a source of mild irritation as of power) to give her a powerful magnetism. Other people are drawn to her, women as well as men. Kit may possess all of the delusions of teenagerhood, but she happens also to be one of those rare people whose mere existence seems capable of reshaping reality. They do exist.
Thomson is brilliant on the void created by solitary, long-distance travel. When Kit gets to Berlin, Klaus Frings is merely the first in a series of steps (she is entirely comfortable using people as tools to get to where she wants to go; refreshingly, this is presented as a characteristic with no moral charge to it. It’s just what she does, what we’d all do if we were capable.) She is aiming, ultimately, for the far North, which means Russia. The Europe she passes through is lit by dimly glowing lamps on the sides of railway tracks and highway flyovers: dawns, dusks, twilights, frost, disorientation. It’s a rather lovely metaphor for her state of mind—she’s always trying to get somewhere, always outwardly calm but internally on edge. Traveling, you meet people and enter situations that exist on the outskirts of the bell curve of what has been your measure of normalcy. Thomson’s descriptions are simultaneously woozy and sharp, like your head after you’ve been drinking for so long you’re now sober again. On a sleeper train to Arkhangel’sk:
In the corridor Russian men are already dressed for bed, in shorts and flip-flops. I edge past them and jump down on to the platform. Some new passengers are hurrying to climb on board, struggling with heavy bags. Others stand about, talking and smoking. Three army women in green uniforms and fur hats pose for a photo under the harsh lights. Steam lifts from the wheels of the train, and the sides of the carriages are ridged, gleaming and faintly dented, like old-fashioned biscuit tins. The night feels brash, dramatic. Nickel-plated.
He’s also clever with his landscape descriptions. They’re generally not more than a paragraph long, but each one gives you a succinct image: color, texture, a simile. They’re like Polaroids, pictures simultaneously fleeting and searing. Here, for instance, Kit is on the ship that will take her to her final destination, Ugolgrad, a mining town near Svalbard and as far north on the planet as you can hope to live:
Behind us Longyearbyen gradually shrinks, the colorful A-frame houses swallowed by a landscape that is vast and jagged. We pass a beach where I found pulpy green-gold banners of seaweed and square grey stones as flat as plates. The Isfjord lies ahead of us. The pinched mauve light makes the water look translucent, dense, almost congealed, like vodka when you keep it in the freezer. In the distance, on the western horizon, is a ghostly range of mountains, cloaked in snow. My heart dilates with a pleasure that is pure and undiluted.
Gorgeous, no? And then that’s it. No poetic waffling beyond what’s necessary.
One of the most impressive things about Katherine Carlyle is the balancing act Thomson pulls off when writing about sexuality and power. Kit is very, very beautiful, as we know, but she doesn’t seem to take any satisfaction at all in sexual power games. Instead, she’s mostly bored by them—her half-hearted liaison with Klaus comes about because he is clearly desperate; she doesn’t sleep with her next step, a man called Cheadle, at all, or with the other friend she makes in Berlin, Oswald. Their interest in and desire for her is something she’s aware of, but she ignores it. She uses her power to close down situations, instead of inflaming them. Entanglement is the last thing she wants or cares about. Yet the book contains two instances of sudden sexual violence against Kit, or rather, one attempted and one, we gather, successful. Given their placement in the plot, it could appear as though Thomson is punishing his own character for her attempts at autonomy, for forgetting that she is a lone woman and lone women are fair game, always. But I don’t think that’s what he’s doing; I think he’s saying something more complicated, which is that there are always going to be men who want to control other people, and who will do it violently, sexually, in whatever way they can, and who will fail utterly in their attempts to reassert control this way. Kit’s autonomy does distress and infuriate these men, but it doesn’t distress or infuriate her author. And her response after both attacks is similar: she is numbed by shock, but she is far from destroyed. The first one occurs just before she goes to Arkhangel’sk; it doesn’t stop her. The second one occurs in Ugolgrad; she does not die, and although there is a change in her demeanor, it’s a change of growth, not of defeat. Her sense of self remains untouched.
On paper, in summary, the book could look reactionary: poor little rich girl, seeking attention and affection from absent father, flees home, gets into trouble, uses the promise and power of sex, finds herself, forgives Daddy. The brilliance of Katherine Carlyle is that Rupert Thomson imbues that story with such specificity—it is not about just any poor little rich girl; it is about her, this girl whose head we live inside, and she is clever; and her father is not just any old daddy, but a war journalist coping badly with bereavement despite reporting on death as a professional every day; and her mother was not just any old mother, but an anarchic, vibrant woman whose first reaction upon being diagnosed with cancer was to take her twelve-year-old daughter to a nightclub on the Italian coast where they danced and drank and laughed with each other. It’s an absolute testament to the power of character. It also forces your hand in terms of empathy. You care about them because they’re individuals. Thomson does this for every character: the bartender Natasha at the hotel in Arkhangel’sk; Cheadle’s girlfriend Tanzi; Yevgeny, the kind elderly Russian Kit meets on a train. It is the George Eliot principle of fiction-writing at its finest—you write to make one human being understand another—and it has resulted in a very, very good book.
Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks, where this review first appeared.
Rupert Thomson, Katherine Carlyle (Corsair, 2015). 9781472150615, hardback, 204 pp.
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