For those who fully surrender to Katharine Kilalea’s uncanny prose poetry, this is an unforgettable voyage, slip sliding away into the unknown and unknowable.

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Book review

The debut novel by South African poet Katharine Kilalea, “OK, Mr. Field,” is an enthralling meditation on absence and presence, and how we seek to shape the emptiness that surrounds and pervades our lives.

After a Chopin recital that has gone very badly, concert pianist Mr. Field overhears a withering assessment of his playing on the train ride home. “What was so moving was his absence of feeling. The way he turned the piece into a splintered, wooden rendition of itself.” Hiding behind a newspaper, he reads of the death by shark attack of architect Jan Kallenbach, and finds himself gazing at pictures of the man’s striking Cape Town house, a replica of Le Corbusier’s modernist landmark Villa Savoye. Dozing off, he misses his stop and is rudely awakened when the engineer crashes the train into a brick wall, an apparent suicide.

Field’s musical career at an end, his shattered left wrist held together by metal pins, he decides to use his settlement money to buy the “House for the Study of Water” from Kallenbach’s newly widowed wife for reasons he himself only dimly intuits. He and his wife, Mim, relocate to a cliff-side outpost at the farthest verge of the world: “How wonderful it was to have nothing to look at!” From this point on, all resemblances to conventional narrative end, and we enter a seductive process of deconstruction, as the increasingly isolated Field becomes unmoored and is set adrift on an undifferentiated sea of experience.

“Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.” As artificial boundaries between things begin to dissolve for Field, his revelatory observations are permeated with fresh and startling meanings. He muses on the antagonistic interplay of his damaged hands at the piano, or the chance music of construction noise from the adjacent lot. He is transfixed by the frank stare of his wife’s nipples, “which seemed to see things in the way that children seem to see things when they stare at you on buses.” He grows attuned to a crossword puzzle’s subtextual questions: “Why do you just sit there? Why don’t you go out?” Arrested by the sounds of words, or a certain slant of light, he has become a kind of involuntary poet.

Some things do seem to escape his notice, however, such as just where his wife has disappeared to. Her vacancy is soon occupied by the presence of the widow Kallenbach, first as an imaginary interlocutor and then as the actual object of his voyeuristic obsession. As summer’s warmth and light gives way to autumn’s winds and rain and the mists of winter, a miasmic menace seeps into the cracks in his dilapidated mind. Perhaps he should get a dog? He does, and names it Schubert.

Kilalea’s impressionistic prose invites comparison to the attentive introspection of Woolf, the existential erosion of Beckett and the reveries of Proust. Its effects might be compared to those of listening to ambient music, or of gazing at a Rothko painting as meanings emerge from the haze. Readers will diverge sharply over whether they find that experience mesmerizing or excruciating, but for those who fully surrender to Kilalea’s uncanny prose poetry, this is an unforgettable voyage, slip sliding away into the unknown and unknowable.

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“OK, Mr. Field” by Katharine Kilalea, Tim Duggan Books, 224 pp., $21