A Separation by Katie Kitamura: Ties that can’t be unbound

Cover image Last month I posted a review of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack, a novel about a long marriage which survived a multitude of difficulties, the premise of which I found fascinating. As you can tell from the title, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation is the other side of that coin, a marriage that doesn’t endure. Not a subject uncommon in fiction in either case but what makes Kitamura’s novel particularly interesting is that it’s about a woman whose estranged husband is missing in the Peloponnese. Their separation has been kept secret from all but her new partner.

Unable to contact her son, Isabella calls his wife, a little surprised to find that she is not with Christopher in Greece where he’s supposedly researching his unfinished book. Our unnamed narrator finds herself agreeing to search for her husband while withholding the knowledge of their separation from his mother. Once there, no efforts are made to track Christopher down. Instead, the narrator contemplates her marriage, Christopher’s many infidelities and her relationship with her new partner while observing the staff at the off-season hotel where her husband has been staying, speculating about the likelihood of a relationship between Christopher and the receptionist who seems oddly hostile towards her. After three days she decides to explore a little, engaging a driver who clearly has hopes for a future with the receptionist. When what has happened to Christopher becomes clear his parents are summoned and the narrator must decide what her role is to be. It seems that the bonds she had planned to break irrevocably are more insoluble than she had imagined.

Kitamura’s novel is written entirely from the narrator’s point of view. All events and observations are filtered through the lens of her imaginative speculation. She’s firmly in the unreliable school, interpreting events and relationships from the barest of facts: some of her deductions prove uncannily accurate so that we begin to trust her judgement while some are undermined by subsequent observations. Her relationship with Christopher’s parents is sharply drawn as she picks her way delicately through territory already thorny even before the (still undisclosed) separation. The complexities of marriage are carefully dissected – the narrator’s just five years in length, Mark and Isabella’s decades long – and the many, varied and unexpected ways in which couples become bound together explored. Kitamura’s style is oddly old-fashioned at times: formal and detached yet extraordinarily effective. Our narrator finds herself both an observer, looking back on her relationship with her self-absorbed husband, and a participant in the dramatic turn events have taken. It’s an absorbing novel, if discomfiting, with nothing so simple as a clean resolution. I suspect I’ll be turning it over in my head for some time.

18 thoughts on “A Separation by Katie Kitamura: Ties that can’t be unbound”

  1. I really want to read this – the dissolution of marriages, their difficulties and vagaries are very much on my mind right now (for obvious reasons). But sadly it was too late to request on Netgalley and I am trying to stick to my book-buying ban at the moment. Hope it comes to the library at some point…

    1. I’ve just realised that this is my second review of an extremely unromantic take on love this week. Must be a reaction to all that Valentine’s Day hearts and roses! I would be interested to hear what you think of this one, Marina.

    1. It turned into something I wasn’t quite expecting. Somehow I’d gleaned an idea from the blurb that the narrator would be actively involved in the search for Christopher but it’s much more interesting than that.

  2. This is a completely different book cover from the one I’ve been seeing in North America. Sounds like another good book about a marriage gone wrong…

    1. I think I prefer the UK version. It seems to reflect the novel better to me. This one might make an interesting read for your Literary Wives, Naomi

  3. This is the second review I’ve read of A Separation, and both have heaped praise upon it which makes it one to look out for I think. Superficially I’m not sure the subject matter is one which appeals to me, but the way you’ve described it with the unreliability of the narrator and the strangeness of the failure of both parties to make public their separation does whet my interest. Great review Susan.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. The non-disclosure does seem a little odd. I think she agrees to it partly to get out of the relationship but it hints at shame on his part. I do love unreliable narrators – so much more interesting than reliable ones!

  4. Sounds rather intriguing and interesting that its such a reflective novel while set in such a dramatic period, and out of the normal, familiar context. A combination of all things, I’ve not heard of this author, have you read anything else, where did you come across her?

    1. Yes, I think that context offers our narrator the distance to become an observer, Claire. I read Into the Forest way back when I was commissioning reviews for a magazine. It’s very different from A Separation but I liked Kitamura’s writing. Of the two I found A Separation the more appealing, though.

  5. I do enjoy unreliable narrators at times. I am glad you had a nice time reading the novel. It is nice that the reader goes through the whole though process of the narrator. I like that you pointed out that the narrator often becomes an observer

    1. Thanks, Resh. I think most of us readers prefer an unreliable narrator. It makes things very much more interesting!

  6. I try to space my reading of books with unreliable narrators – too many weakens the enjoyment. Anyway, I ear-marked this one when you flagged it in one of your ‘books to look out for’ posts and your review only cements my need to get my hands on a copy!

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