A Separation by Katie Kitamura

A Separation: A Novel BY Katie Kitamura. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 240 pages. $25.

The cagey narrator of Katie Kitamura’s new novel, A Separation, is an unnamed woman who has recently separated from her unfaithful husband, Christopher. He has asked her to keep the split a secret. When Christopher stops returning his mother’s phone calls while traveling in Greece, the narrator is enlisted to go find him, feeling she has no choice but to make the trip. She travels to the small village where he was staying and pretends to perform her wifely duties as she searches for her husband, all the while planning to ask for a long-overdue divorce. Even though Christopher exists only as a memory for most of the book, he remains one of its most active characters. Every relationship in the story, including the mother and wife—and even peripheral encounters, like between the narrator and the hotel staff—is organized around his absence.

The narrator works as a translator and thinks of herself less as a creator than a vessel. “The translator’s ultimate task,” she explains, “is to be invisible.” (Christopher, on the other hand, is a writer. He went to Greece to research mourning rituals for a long-delayed book.) And though the narrator says she is merely a medium, the notion of a passive translator is, of course, inaccurate: The role is inevitably active and interpretive. Beneath the narrator's seeming indifference lurks a current of strong emotion and a talent for sharp observation. Though she doesn’t openly express her disappointment at the dissolution of her marriage, her assessments of her husband are cutting. “Christopher was a charming man,” she says, “and charm is made up of surfaces—every charming man is a confidence man.” Shrouded in precise, unforgiving, and detached prose, her contempt is all the more searing.

The narrator spends listless days at the hotel, which Kitamura depicts in vivid set pieces that convey a mounting sense of doom. Christopher’s room is found in disarray, with books, clothes, and dirty dishes everywhere. Having a messy room is out of character for him: As the narrator explains, he didn’t ever really clean up after himself, but “he rarely inhabited a space that was not clean.” And Kitamura sets the story in a forbidding town, where impending violence is felt in the air. The countryside around the hotel is a desolate forest, charred by fires. The narrator sees disconcerting signs all around: she encounters a pack of wild dogs, and, on ancient murals on the town’s churches, she finds the faces of saints scratched off. “The effect was strange,” she writes, “a row of saints standing blind and faceless, rendered anonymous by a likewise unidentified hand.” Observations like this, and the verve of Kitamura's visual detail, allow us to imagine a more expansive inner life for the narrator than she ever admits to.

With little else to do but wait, she begins to collect evidence of an affair between Christopher and Maria, the hotel’s front-desk woman. When the narrator first notices her, she remarks that Maria is not particularly beautiful, but says that her “supremely practical” body—so unlike her own slight form—makes her the kind of woman Christopher would be drawn to. “It was as if her body were leaden, she was a woman firmly tethered to the ground,” she writes. “Perhaps such carnality was in the end irresistible.” Maria confesses her affair as the two have dinner, during which Maria orders lobster and steak and eats with fervor, the juices dripping down her chin. Losing her self-possession completely, Maria peppers the narrator with questions about Christopher. Though the narrator doesn’t admit that she is jealous, she describes Maria with pity, an emotion that is inseparable from condescension. Everything about Maria—her body, her appetite, her ardor—contrasts with the narrator’s airy, removed quality. She avoids thinking about what she has in common with Maria by viewing her with disgust. “It was a terrible thing,” she says, “to love and not know whether you were loved in return, it led to the worst sensations—jealousy, rage, self-loathing—to all these lesser states.”

When the narrator discovers pornography on Christopher’s laptop, she imagines how it served to facilitate his trysts and fired up his unruly imagination. It’s the closest she comes to conceding that she once had feelings for her husband, as she obliquely acknowledges their intimacy and her feeling that she was a disappointment to him:

Perhaps these images had led to arousal that was then fulfilled with a living, breathing partner, a woman or perhaps two, waiting in the bedroom or maybe looking at the computer with him, at one point, it might even have been me. A woman with whom he would then proceed: the pornographic image still fixed in his imagination, a supplement to the living and breathing body, which in itself was no longer enough, the live sex that followed always something of a disappointment compared to the limitless promise of the pornographic fantasy, the boundlessness of the Internet.

Though she is reluctant to acknowledge the depth of her own disappointment, she can't conceal her frustration that he had hungered for infinite novelty.

As resentful as she might be, the narrator continues to burrow deeper into Christopher’s life. At one point, her driver asks what brought her to the village. Rather than telling her own story, she tells Christopher’s, saying she has come to Greece to research mourning rituals. The driver, who may have gone through precisely the same motions with Christopher, leads her to his relative, who works as a mourner-for-hire. The professional mourner is a kindred spirit, who, like the narrator, is paid to channel the thoughts and feelings of others. The wailer explains that in order to sing her funeral dirges, she conjures genuine feelings of loss. “You need to have a great deal of sadness inside you in order to mourn for other people,” she notes, “and not only yourself.” When the mourner performs, the narrator realizes that she is paid “not because of her vocal capabilities, not even for the considerable strength of her emoting, but because she agreed to undergo suffering, in the place of others.”

This is one way to think of the narrator’s predicament as she entrenches herself in her role as wife, and her mother-in-law swoops into the story. The narrator seems apathetic, but there is something subversive in the sullen way she fulfills her duties: stranded in a lie Christopher insisted on, she frees herself with quiet sabotage. When the police enter the picture, she doesn’t share information that might untangle what happened to Christopher. Her unwillingness to cooperate is another sly act of refusal.

A Separation sneakily conveys the way women are trained to contain themselves and cater to men’s aspirations and whims, while also cleaning up after their bad deeds. Christopher’s mother blames the narrator for her inability to adequately enclose Christopher, a task she failed at herself. The commonalities between mother- and daughter-in-law are cold comfort, and shed light on the impossible demands of women’s intimate relationships with men. Kitamura sees this clearly, and her observations are appropriately acidic, subtly exposing the punishing demand that women be both utterly passive and utterly in control.

Molly Long is a freelance writer who works on the production staff of the New Yorker.