This is the third book I’ve read by Judith Hermann. Like Alice, the first, Letti Park is a collection of short stories comprising seventeen pieces, some just a few pages long. All three books are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but unlike the stories in Alice which are linked by the theme of loss and grief, these stories don’t lend themselves to easy analysis which is not to say they fall short in comparison, just that they’re harder to describe.
Hermann’s collection ranges from a group of people storing a delivery of coal, wondering about the precocious motherless four-year-old who arrives on his bicycle, to a daughter reluctantly visiting her father caught up in his own mental illness and unable to express an appreciation of her thoughtfulness, to a woman whose relationship with the therapist a friend has recommended long outlasts the friendship. In ‘Some Memories’ a lodger is disquieted by her elderly landlady’s tale of a long ago swimming accident on the eve of her holiday, worried about her landlady’s decline A woman catches a frightening glimpse of another world when on a holiday her partner has advised against in ‘The East’. In ‘Mother’ a woman takes on the duties of a daughter when her best friend dies prematurely and becomes part of a distant family much to her children’s annoyance.
These are not stories in which a great deal happens. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quietly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. All this is expressed in elegantly understated prose: The champagne is ice-cold, and for Ada it turns the afternoon into something that hurts behind the ears, hurts in certain places in her body where, she suspects, happiness is hiding. This is a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s one that I’d been looking forward to very much and it didn’t disappoint.
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.
Those lovely people at Shiny New Books have been busy again. A new issue came out on Monday. Lots of reviews, interviews and features by some of my favourite bloggers and a host of other contributors to keep you going for some time, although there are also ‘inbetweenies’ published between issues should you gobble it all up. Sign up for the newsletter and you’ll be kept informed. My own contribution is a review of Kim Thúy’s lovely Mãn, exquisitely translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. This slim, very beautiful novel is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language. If you want to read more of my review and explore the many other contributions on offer just click here.