Katie Kitamura’s taut novel “A Separation” slowly reveals the secrets that come to the surface as a marriage falls apart. Kitamura appears Feb. 17 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
The premise looks so simple on the surface; the book looks so short. Yet this narrative and the ideas it presents are anything but simple or brief.
A young Englishwoman goes to a remote region in Greece to find out what has happened to her estranged husband, Christopher, a charming older writer whose frequent infidelities have finally made her decide to divorce him. Having given up on the marriage, the wife — our nameless protagonist/narrator — is now living with another man. But the married couple has kept their separation a secret, so the wife continues that deception when Christopher’s overbearing mother phones to tell her that he has apparently disappeared in southern Greece, and sends her an airline ticket to go find him.
She arrives in the coastal town of Gerolimenas intending to tell her husband their marriage is over. (Her resolve is strengthened by her discovery that Christopher apparently had an affair with Maria, the hotel’s desk clerk.) But where has charming Christopher gone, and how much do the other residents — particularly Maria’s jealous admirer Stefano — know about his disappearance?
The author of “A Separation” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
In “A Separation” (Riverhead, 229 pp., $25) author Katie Kitamura unspools her observations and her plot in a leisurely first-person narrative, in which dark symbolism plays a heavy role: The very earth in the surrounding countryside has been scorched by widespread fires. Christopher has come to Gerolimenas to research local grief and funeral customs. Our narrator, a translator, has been considering translating a novel about a couple whose child disappears in the desert. She has never been able to read Christopher’s handwriting (which is “tight” and “messy”). She muses that his domineering mother “would have killed me, actually slain me then and there” if it were revealed that the narrator is going to Greece to ask for a divorce. Portents of doom lurk on nearly every page of this novel.
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In a harrowing scene during which Christopher’s wronged wife talks with the infatuated hotel clerk, Maria, the author reflects on the subject of men’s wedding rings and their advantages to the philanderer: “For him, perhaps, the ring served to give him a longer leash, it was more difficult to make demands of a married man, however far things went, he could always say, You knew from the start that I was married, you knew what you were getting into, it was plain as the ring on my finger.”
“A Separation” circles in and around itself, in style as well as in plot; clauses upon clauses merge in lengthy sentences strung together by commas. No quotation marks are used in accounts of conversations, a practice that seems disconcerting at first. The prose flows forward, and the author’s sense of direction is sure; there is a point to every observation.
Who is Christopher? — is he “husband, ex-husband, lover, deceiver”? How did their marriage get to this point? Who really left whom? The narrator muses: “I had left him to his faithlessness — yes, in the end, I had been the one to do the leaving.” But there is much more than the Christopher mystery to this taut little novel with its disquieting observations about secrets, lies, and the ways in which we all are impenetrable to each other.