She hatched from an egg. A swan had dazzled the young queen of Sparta, so the myth tells us, seducing her with his glossy feathers and robust wingspan, the muscled arch of his neck, thunder-lord of Olympus in animal guise. Later that night, presumably in a blush of guilt, Leda offered herself to her husband, eventually laying two eggs from which four siblings emerged: two mortal, two sired by Zeus. The mortal daughter, Clytemnestra, lacked the transcendent beauty of Helen, her god-spawned sister; and one can imagine the resentment that built up over the years, like layers of sludge and grit, a soul’s moraine. But from this potent brew of marital betrayal and familial discord Aeschylus spun his masterful trilogy, the Oresteia, with Clytemnestra as the fierce, treacherous wife who spurs the drama into motion, so unsparing in her rage toward her husband that she murdered him as soon as he sailed home across the wine-dark sea from the Trojan War, a ten-year absence in which she had ruled their city of Argos, on the Peloponnesian coast, reveling in her power, flaunting a lover before her outraged daughter and son.
Missing husband, vengeful wife. The figure of Clytemnestra haunts A Separation, Katie Kitamura’s exquisitely wrought if occasionally static new novel, which recounts a translator’s search for her estranged husband in a resort village on the same Peloponnesian peninsula. The novel opens as Rachel receives a phone call in her London flat from Isabella, her mother-in-law, inquiring about Christopher, a writer, who has gone off to Greece to research a book. Christopher had insisted that Rachel not tell anyone about their separation, even though she’s already kindled a romance with an acquaintance and intends to ask Christopher for a divorce. Isabella can’t reach her son, has no idea of his whereabouts: would Rachel track him down?
In Kitamura’s telling Christopher is an attractive, insouciant playboy with a wandering eye, the cause of the split. Against her better judgment Rachel flies to Greece, settling into the same plush hotel where Christopher had been staying until just before her arrival, when he mysteriously vanished without checking out, lost among the craggy beaches, fields charred from recent wildfires. She finds sanctuary here, striking up odd friendships with the hotel staff — Kitamura skillfully draws the cast and setting, creating a Hitchcockian mood among the bright colors and bleached sunlight of the Mediterranean — as Rachel muses on her failed relationship, on why men feel entitled to stray, even if they remain at home under their wives’ steely stare: “Now, they no longer went away — there was not, at least for most of them, a sea to roam or a desert to cross, there was nothing but the floors of an office tower, the morning commute, a familiar and monotonous landscape . . . it was only on the shores of infidelity that they achieved a little privacy, a little inner life.”
This may sound like forgiveness, or at least a stab at understanding, but Kitamura’s too shrewd for a pat resolution, probing further as Rachel’s investigation yields a cold trail. Most of A Separation consists of her furious debates with herself. A couple of vivid set pieces — a trip to a dilapidated Byzantine church; an interview with an elderly woman who’s a professional mourner, paid by a bereaved family to wail publicly — are offset by endless ruminations on marriage: what it means to wives, what it cannot mean to husbands. Beneath Rachel’s attempts to pin down Christopher boils anger at herself.
In this Kitamura is not alone but takes her place among a set of women authors who explore ambivalence about marriage through their female characters. There’s a classical feel to these explorations, a need to revisit — to reinvent — the old stories. Lauren Groff’s much-acclaimed 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, portrays a lengthy marriage from two opposed perspectives: the husband believes it to be strong and true while the wife keeps her awful secrets tucked away. (Groff’s title evokes the Erinyes, the Furies who torment Orestes after he slays Clytemnestra to avenge his father’s murder.) The British novelist Rachel Cusk has dramatized similar themes in Outline and the just-published Transit, her surfaces cool and elegant and deliberate, differing from Kitamura’s quicksilver sentences. In her nonfiction book Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, Cusk details a visit to the Peloponnese and the graves of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, the queen’s struggles with a patriarchal system that considers her lesser: “In Agamemnon’s absence Clytemnestra has had to play his role: she has learned she is capable of governing his palace, of ruling Argos, of commanding his underlings . . . She is seeking a new form, a new configuration of male and female. She is seeking equality. Children will not be born from equality, nor will empires be built or frontiers expanded . . . Clytemnestra wants no more begetting. She wants the peace of equality but to get it she will have to use violence.”
Ultimately, the violence Rachel wreaks on Christopher is internal, through the act of remembering the emotional harm they inflicted on each other. After the mystery of her husband’s disappearance is untangled, one of the most poignant moments of the story comes in Rachel’s final encounter with her in-laws. Kitamura depicts Christopher’s parents beautifully — they add a dash of color, a kinetic energy, at the precise moment the narrative begins to sag from the weight of its brooding. Burned-out in a burned-out landscape, Rachel manages to see something that has up to this point eluded her, leaving the reader with a grace note: “It was not surprising that I would now look at Christopher’s parents and see their marriage anew . . . One of the problems with happiness — and I’d been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged — is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative. I now looked at Isabella and Mark’s marriage and saw that I understood nothing, about it or about marriage in general, they knew things that Christopher and I had not had, or had not taken, the time to find out.” She comes away renewed, ready to forge a life with her new partner in London. Christopher, meanwhile, leaves the story without having spoken for himself: we only see him in unflattering flashbacks. Kitamura spares Rachel the fate that awaited Clytemnestra; but in this way she has her revenge, just as did that legendary queen of Argos, whose quest to create an authentic self led her to commit the most heinous act of all, a story as old as the Greeks.