There’s more than one way to feel like a stranger in a foreign land. The pleasant way is to travel to a vacation spot, but a more unnerving sense of dislocation comes when one is a party to a faltering marriage. Katie Kitamura explores this theme in her new novel, A Separation, a quietly devastating story of a childless, London-based couple on the verge of divorce.
The unnamed narrator works as a translator. We never learn her country of origin, but, from the beginning of the marriage, her mother-in-law, Isabella, “a formidable adversary,” often referred to her daughter-in-law’s foreignness: “[S]he’s very nice but different to us… We don’t feel as if we know you.”
When the novel begins, Christopher, the narrator’s husband, has been in Greece for a month to conduct research for a book, a general-interest “study of mourning rituals around the world”—an odd topic, the narrator thinks, for a “careless flirt” in his early forties who has never suffered loss.
The narrator has been separated from Christopher for six months and is eager to ask him for a divorce. When her mother-in-law calls the narrator’s London flat to say she can’t reach Christopher in Greece, she’s surprised to discover that the narrator didn’t accompany him. Worried that something has happened to him and ignorant of the separation, Isabella finds the name of the hotel where Christopher is staying and buys the narrator a ticket to go there and investigate.
What follows is a psychologically rich story involving a female hotel clerk who may have had an affair with Christopher, another woman who is a “widely admired weeper” known for her musical lamentations, and a suspicious murder. It doesn’t give away the secrets of A Separation to state that Kitamura finds a clever parallel between the art of translation and the wanderlust of a disloyal spouse: the struggle to be faithful, which, as the narrator states, is “an impossible task because there are multiple and contradictory ways” of achieving fidelity. As this coolly elegant work makes clear, the interpretation of fealty may vary depending on whom you ask.
A version of this review appeared in the February 2017 issue of BookPage.