Tag Archives: Katie Kitamura

Paperbacks to Look Out for in March 2018: Part One

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to look forward to in March, many of which I’ve already read beginning with Sally Rooney’s award-winning debut, Conversations with Friends, which is about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. Rooney’s novel explores the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. Not a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.

You could say the same about Katie Kitamura’s A Separation about a woman whose husband is missing in the Peloponnese. Their estrangement has been kept secret from every one apart from her new partner. She flies to Greece at her mother-in-law’s request where she 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.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie’s retelling of Antigone, also begins with a separation. Orphaned Isma has finally taken up her place to study in America now that her sister and brother are grown up. A chance meeting leads to an affair back in London between her sister, Aneeka, and the son of Cover imagethe determinedly anti-terrorist, Muslim home secretary but Aneeka has an ulterior motive – a determination to bring her beloved brother back from Syria. Shamsie’s characters are carefully fleshed out and entirely credible, her writing is both beautiful and lucid, her depictions of political maneuvering and the media’s lurid sensationalism sophisticated and believable.

A second novel from a writer whose first you’ve loved as much as I did Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs is a tricky thing – sets the heart racing with anticipation tinged with apprehension. Set in Wisconsin and spanning nearly six decades The Hearts of Men explores what it is to be a man in America through the lens of two very different boys who form a kind of friendship in 1962. Butler is careful to avoid turning them into cartoon black and white characters but Nelson is clearly the novel’s moral compass while Jonathan represents a more louche type of manhood. It’s a deeply heartfelt novel which asks hard questions and gives no easy answers.

Sara Baume’s second novel also followed a debut which I deeply admired: Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world. In A Line Made by Walking twenty-five-year-old Frankie is an artist who takes herself off to her grandmother’s dilapidated bungalow, left empty since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin, Frankie decides to photograph it, to make it part of an art work, a project that might rescue her from her overwhelming unhappiness and loneliness. An unsettling, deeply affecting novel.

Cover imageTom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is also deeply affecting. Labelled as a piece of autofiction it’s about the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. An intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

That’s it for the first batch of March paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with new March titles they’re here. More paperbacks soon, none of which I’ve read.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover imageI seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.

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

Cover imageLast 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.

Books to Look Out for in March 2017: Part Two

Top of the list for this second batch of March goodies is Michèle Forbes’ Edith & Oliver, largely on the strength of her exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth, published back in 2014. Hopes are high, then, for this new novel which is about a couple who fall in love when she’s a pianist working the music halls and he’s touring the world performing as an illusionist. When music halls fail, thanks to the advent of cinema, these two are left with only each other and their children as glamour seeps away and Oliver’s dangerous flaws become apparent.

Katie Kitamura’s A Separation is also about a marriage – this one, as the title makes clear, so strained it has broken. A young woman leaves her husband, agreeing to keep the rift between themselves, but then finds that he has disappeared somewhere in the Peloponnese. She reluctantly tries to track him down and as she does so, contemplates what has led to the breakdown of their marriage in ’a story of intimacy, infidelity and compassion… … about the gulf that divides us from the lives of others and the narratives we create to mask our true emotions’ according to the publisher. Not very cheerful, I know, but it’s an interesting idea and I’ve enjoyed Kitamura’s previous fiction.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West carries on the theme of relationships and love, this time between two refugees fleeing the civil war raging through their country.  Nadia and Saeed are ‘two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it’ says the publisher. Hamid’s name may be familiar from his previous novel, the Man Booker shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I enjoyed very much.Cover image

Which can’t be said for Stephen May’s debut, I’m afraid, although I think I’m in the minority there – Life! Death! Prizes! was one of those books that everyone seem to love but I did not – however I do like the sound of Stronger Than Skin. When Stephen Chadwick sees a police car outside his house he knows why it is there and that the family life he’s carefully built up over twenty years is about to unravel. According to the publishers it’s ‘a story of a toxic love gone wrong, with a setting that moves easily between present day London and 1990s Cambridge… …compulsively readable, combining a gripping narrative with a keen eye for the absurdities of the way we live now’. Quite like the sound of that but we’ll see.

That’s it for March new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks shortly…