I’ve admired Rupert Thomson’s work for some time. His novels are never predictable, always exploring unexpected terrain from the advertising world, satirized in Soft!, to the Medici court in Secrecy‘s seventeenth century Florence. The last one’s my particular favourite. Famously, Davie Bowie’s is The Insult which appeared as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time. I’m sure Bowie didn’t come up with that tag which sounds straight out of Soft! to me. The ones I’ve read all have an element of suspense but they’re very much more than thrillers. What kept me on edge in this new novel was the fate of the eponymous Katherine who seems to put herself in ever increasing danger.
Nineteen-year-old Katherine was what used to be called by the tabloids a test tube baby. Conceived using IVF, her embryo was implanted into her mother eight years after its conception. Her mother died when Katherine was sixteen from a cancer Katherine has convinced herself was the result of her own implantation. Her father is a journalist at CNN. Rarely at home in Rome where they settled when Katherine’s mother was still alive, he’s more often to be found in the Middle East reporting on the latest conflict. Katherine has won a scholarship to Oxford but in the September before she’s due to go she decides to disappear. Overhearing a conversation in a cinema about a man in Berlin she convinces herself it’s a message to her and takes herself off there. So begins a series of adventures in which Katherine will meet several older men while travelling from Rome to Archangel then on up into the Arctic Circle where she finds a kind of peace, far away from anyone she knows and anyone who knows her. Throughout her odyssey she fantasizes that her father is looking for her, alerted to her disappearance by the rendezvous she’s set up for them in Berlin – which she knows that she will not make – hoping to snare the attention she craves from him and dangerously courts with other men.
Thomson’s writing is often very striking. The Prologue in which Katherine recounts her own in vitro conception is extraordinarily vivid. Later, ‘His eyes are damp too. When he looks at me they seem to leave a deposit, as snails do’ describes a masculine leer perfectly while the image of the September sun in Rome ‘richer, more tender, the colour of old wedding rings’ was a gorgeous thing to read on a dank November day. Thomson is equally vivid in his exploration of the effects of Katherine’s origins. She often feels watched, as if the other embryos implanted with her accompany her on her journey. At times she feels emotionally absent ‘Sometimes I suspect I haven’t quite thawed out yet.’ Her meetings with increasingly shady men seem part of the process of making herself feel alive. Her guilt about her own survival and her mother’s death are made all the more poignant by her vibrant memories of her mother while her elaborate fantasies of her father’s pursuit convey an aching need for his attention. Wittingly or unwittingly, Katherine has left a trail of clues for anyone determined enough to find her. It’s a clever piece of work, and a fascinating theme to explore – one which is not so very far from home for Thomson as this interview reveals.