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 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, first in Outline and then in 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. Hamilton Cain is the author of a memoir, This Boy's Faith, and a former finalist for a National Magazine Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Reviewer: Hamilton Cain
The Barnes & Noble Review
…a kind of postmodern mystery in which we end up with a dead body, evidence of a violent crime, an abundant trail of clues and even angry mourners, yet nobody feels compelled to pursue the investigation. There is something unknowable in human nature, the novel seems to assume, something better left unexamined…In the hierarchical world of Kitamura's novel, there is little love or friendship between equals, only manipulation and control, guilt and obedience, humiliation and submission. And behind these power games, one detects an overriding fatalism about the possibility of human connection, a sense that "
wife and husband and marriage are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than perhaps can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing." It is this radical disbeliefa disbelief, it appears, even in the power of artthat makes Kitamura's accomplished novel such a coolly unsettling work.
The New York Times Book Review - Fernanda Eberstadt
The unnamed narrator of Kitamura’s third novel has been separated from her husband, Christopher, for six months when she travels from London to southern Greece to find him, prompted into action by Christopher’s mother, who is unaware of the separation and worried because her son isn’t returning phone calls. The narrator describes Athens traffic and the Peloponnesian coast, but it is her internal landscape—her imaginings, suspicions, speculations, thoughts, and feelings—that dominates the narrative. Habitually unfaithful Christopher has left his wife in the dark regarding much of his private life. She means to ask for a divorce, and then wavers. When she arrives at the hotel where he is registered, she delays calling his room. When Christopher fails to appear by checkout time, she takes no part in clearing out his things. When a pretty hotel receptionist turns out to be one of Christopher’s lovers, the narrator buys her dinner. The narrator’s deepest feeling comes not from learning the reason for Christopher’s disappearance but from listening to a professional mourner’s lament. Research into this mourning ritual had been Christopher’s excuse for visiting Greece, although even his mother understood he also anticipated extra-marital indulgences. Kitamura suggests but never specifies the extent of these indulgences; likewise she leaves plot issues unresolved. Instead, she focuses on capturing a disarray of contradictory emotions, delineating the line between white lies and betrayal, legal and personal relationships, the impulse to hold on and the need to let go. Despite the mysterious premise, readers may find that the narrator’s frequent contemplation frustratingly stalls the novel. (Feb.)
Kitamura is a writer with a visionary, visual imagination… In
A Separation, [she] has made consciousness her territory. The book is all mind, and an observant, taut, astringent mind it is.” — The New Yorker “A slow burn of a novel that gathers its great force and intensity through careful observation and a refusal to accept old, shopworn narratives of love and loss.” — Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation "Thrilling." — New York Magazine “Fascinating, artful and atmospheric.” —Paula McLain, Parade magazine “Unsettling… Kitamura traces the narrator’s thoughts in sentences striking for their control and lucidity, their calm surface belied by the instability lurking beneath… The more the narrator tells us, the less we trust her. And the less we trust her, the more this hypnotic novel compels us to confront the limits of what we, too, can know.” — O, the Oprah Magazine “A novel so seamless, that follows its path with such consequence, that even minor deviations seem loaded with meaning. Wonderful.” — Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle “Accomplished… a coolly unsettling work.” — New York Times Book Review “Kitamura’s prose gallops, combining Elena Ferrante-style intricacies with the tensions of a top-notch whodunit.” — Elle “Kitamura weaves a novel of quiet power, mostly due to a narrative voice that is so subtly commanding—so effortlessly self-aware and perceptive, teeming with dry yet empathetic humor—that it’s a challenge not to follow her journey in a single sitting.” — Harper's Bazaar “Katie Kitamura breathes new life into the theme of marital breakdown.” — The New Republic “[A]n atmospheric and emotionally sophisticated novel that reads like a taut Patricia Highsmith thriller.” — BBC “The burnt landscape, the disappearance of a man, the brilliantly cold, precise, and yet threatening, churning tone of the narrator—make A Separation an absolutely mesmerizing work of art.” — Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers "Katie Kitamura is a visionary.... A Separation is a poised literary thriller on the outside and an investigation of interiority and the faulty narratives we assign to the world on the inside." — LitHub " A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017." — The Millions " A Separation displays Kitamura’s stylistic control once again.... Violence of all kinds, not just against other bodies but against other minds, remains Kitamura’s quarry. ‘A Separation’ proves that few stalk such game more patiently or more powerfully.” — San Francisco Chronicle “Unnerving... taut with quiet suspense.... It is wonderful to read a book that respects its readers in this way; Kitamura allows our imaginations to do much of the work.” —NPR “[A] slow-burn psychological novel, which rakes the embers of betrayal to find grief smoldering underneath… An absorbing tale.” — Boston Globe “This novel has everything I love in a book: love, loss, a journey, and stunning writing.” — Martha Stewart "Spell-binding" — Real Simple “Prepare to feel, well, everything – this is a raw look at an emotionally charged life event.” — Marie Claire “A contemplative and lyrical narrative... A Separation will transfix you as powerfully as the Mediterranean vistas that are its backdrop.” — Harper's Bazaar (The Best New Books of 2017, So Far) "Stylistically ambitious and psychologically rich… A Separation is a work of great intensity and originality… There are deft meditations on the art of translation and the ritual of mourning, and sharp insight into what binds and divides lovers.... This is the book that elevates Kitamura to a different league.” — Minneapolis Star-Tribune “Profound and gripping. I had that rare sense of feeling like I was in a creation specifically made out of words, that couldn't have been made out of any other substance. Kitamura combines the calm complexity of Joseph Conrad with the pacing and reveal of Patricia Highsmith. This novel is a wonder and a pleasure.” — Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances and Little Labors “Told through a chilling first-person narration, A Separation explores the distance and intimacy that comes with searching for someone you are separated from and the grief that such a hunt can carry.” — Mashable " A Separation opens up fissures of ambiguity in emotional experiences too often misunderstood as monolithic—grief, desire, estrangement—and plumbs these crevices for all their complexities. It has both urgency and afterglow: I read it quickly, but didn’t stop thinking about it for a long time once I was done." — Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams “Secrets make up the plot and theme of [ A Separation].... There is a crime and certainly a twist, but the discoveries and resolutions are internal, existential.” — Vulture “[T]hrilling domestic noir…smart, spare…Kitamura gives us a book that’s worth reading for its inventive cadences alone. And there’s more to it than that: surprising turns and honest thoughts on the complexity of loss.” — Huffington Post “[An] intimate, psychological mystery.” — Boston Globe "[M]ark your calendar for sleeplessness, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll read it straight through without stopping…Kitamura’s spare language somehow seems barely able to control the emotion it signifies.” —LitHub “Tautly austere, lyrical and jarring...For readers seeking profound examinations of challenging relationships . . . Kitamura’s oeuvre will be a compelling discovery.” —[STARRED REVIEW] Library Journal "A spare and stunning portrait of a marital estrangement... [B]uilds into a hypnotic meditation on infidelity and the unknowability of one's spouse. In precise and muted prose, the entire story unspools in the coolly observant mind of a young woman... A minutely observed novel of infidelity unsettles its characters and readers." — Kirkus [STARRED REVIEW] “Brilliantly written and reminiscent of Gone Girl.” — InStyle “Unlike every other half-baked thriller with a female protagonist making the same claim, this one might actually deliver. Elegant prose makes all the difference.” — Refinery29 “At once cool and burning, Kitamura’s immersive, probing psychological tale benefits from its narrator’s precise observations and nimble use of language.” — Booklist "Kitamura is a major talent." — The Boston Globe "Hemingway's returned to life—and this time, he's a woman." —Tom McCarthy "A mesmerizing novel, one whose force builds inexorably as its story unfolds in daring, unexpected strokes... Be warned: you'll find yourself reading long past midnight, out of breath and wide awake. This is a bold and powerful book." —Julie Orringer "A watchful and magnificent work. From the first page, Kitamura is in complete control, both of the prose and the story it carries. She is a skilled hunter and we are her helpless prey." —Teju Cole
Although separated from philandering husband Christopher for six months, a London woman agrees to continue to postpone "the process…of telling people." Almost a month has passed since she last talked to Christopher, rendering her unable to answer his mother Isabella's unexpected request for his whereabouts. She travels to Greece at Isabella's insistence, arriving at the hotel where her errant spouse has a room, only to learn he's traveling. Her wait for his return amid strangers who have known him more recently, more intimately, has shocking results. Between an anniversary-celebrating couple flaunting their passion to an elderly woman who is a rare professional funereal "weeper," the woman confronts the disintegration of love: "perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing." VERDICT Like her two previous novels (The Longshot, Gone to the Forest), Kitamura's latest is another tautly austere, intensely internal narrative, both adroitly lyrical and jarring. For readers seeking profound examinations of challenging relationships—think Pamela Erens's Eleven Hours, Jung Yun's Shelter, Ha Jin's Waiting —Kitamura's oeuvre will be a compelling discovery. [See Prepub Alert, 8/8/16.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
Dread and lassitude twist into a spare and stunning portrait of a marital estrangement.At the end of this unsettling psychological novel, the narrator suggests that "perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing." Kitamura's third work of fiction builds into a hypnotic meditation on infidelity and the unknowability of one's spouse. In precise and muted prose, the entire story unspools in the coolly observant mind of a young woman, a translator. She is estranged from Christopher Wallace, her "handsome and wealthy" husband of five years. He is a relentless adulterer; the narrator herself is now living with another man. The novel begins with a phone call from Isabella, a hostile and unpleasant mother-in-law, petulant that she can't reach her only son and ignorant of the separation. Christopher has decamped to rural Greece, and Isabella insists her daughter-in-law leave England to go after him. Thinking it time to ask for a divorce, she agrees. In the remote fishing village of Gerolimenas, there are grim portents: stray dogs, high unemployment, a landscape charred from a season of wildfires, and the hostility of a hotel receptionist who appears to have slept with Christopher. Each of 13 taut chapters turns the screw; at the beginning of the seventh there is a murder. Kitamura leaves it unsolved. Instead of delivering a whodunit, the author plucks a bouquet of unforeseen but psychologically piercing consequences. The narrator thinks, "One of the problems of happiness—and I'd been very happy, when Christopher and I were first engaged—is that it makes you both smug and unimaginative." As this harrowing story ends, her life is diminished and her imagination is cruelly awake. A minutely observed novel of infidelity unsettles its characters and readers.