More than one reviewer has compared Katie Kitamura’s new novel, A Separation, with Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014). Both books feature female protagonists, newly divorced, who find themselves on holiday in Greece. They’re also tonally alike, sharply observed, intricately detailed and almost devoid of passion or warmth. And yet while I loved Outline, I was less impressed with A Separation. Putting aside whether the comparison is fair, the reason I like the Cusk more than the Kitamura is because of what separates – ha ha – the two novels.
While this isn’t a review of Outline – I’ve done that already – it’s worth noting that the strength of that book is that we, like the narrator, are observers. Cusk’s genius is that she’s written a novel where we learn more about the supporting characters than our protagonist. That’s not the case with A Separation. Our narrator may not be named but we learn plenty about her, specifically that she’s only just left her husband, Christopher, that their separation hasn’t been made public and that she still feels conflicted about him, which comes to the fore when she’s informed by her mother in law – who isn’t aware of their current marital status – that he’s gone missing in Greece. And it’s this critical difference between Outline and A Separation – the role of the narrator – that affected my feelings toward the two books.
Before I start on the negative I want to be clear that Kitamura’s prose is top drawer stuff. Reviews of the novel have focussed on her use of the comma splice – Lionel Shriver attacked it, Jonathan Gibbs defended it – but as John Self notes in his review of the novel, whatever your views of this stylistic quirk in Kitamura’s hand it produces sentences overflowing with unexpected detonations of astonishing prose. Take this example:
From across the table, I saw that he had buttoned his shirt up incorrectly, so that the fabric puckered in the middle of the shirt’s placket, an unusual slip in a man so fastidious about his appearance, it was an indication of how distraught he was, he could hardly have looked in the mirror before leaving his room.
Ignore the splice and focus on the rhythm of the sentence: puckered matched tonally with placket (a word I had to look up) followed by the multi-syllabic fastidious evoking the perfect image of a man in distress.
Beautiful prose, though, is not enough for me. As I note above this is a book that’s very much about the psychology of its protagonist. When the experience is this intimate you – the reader – need to have a relationship with the character. You don’t have to like her, or identify with her, or find resonance in her experience. But there has to be something. For me there was nothing. Here is a woman who has flown to Greece not to find her husband but to come to terms with the remnants of her marriage. A woman who seems to have wrapped her identity so tightly in the notion of marriage that she can’t bear to tell her mother in law that she and Christopher are no longer together. And yet I couldn’t muster any emotion about her state of mind or her situation. Part of that is the affectless prose that’s beautiful and serene when describing others but less successful when picking at the thoughts of the narrator. And part of it is that I never bought the relationship between the protagonist and her husband. From her own perspective – it’s all we ever get – her portrayal of Christopher is of a man who craves attention, more interested in his ‘research’ than his wife. A man who his mother confirms could never keep his dick in his pants. If there was ever any love or chemistry between the two of them it’s never made evident. And yet our narrator is incapable, physically, of telling anyone, other than her current boyfriend – bemused as to why the separation is being kept secret – that they are no longer together. It’s possible I’m missing some critical element, but for me it was hard to care, hard to engage, hard to understand our protagonist.
And that’s the big difference between this novel and Rachel Cusk’s Outline. We’re not meant to engage with Cusk’s narrator, she’s deliberately been kept in the shadows. In contrast I believe Kitamura wants us to have some appreciation of the tensions faced by her narrator. Sadly it never came together for me.