The title of Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation, is telling; the phrase is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, but it is nonetheless the most accurate way of describing the situation in which the narrator finds herself. At the novel’s opening, the unnamed narrator—a translator living in London—has separated from her charming but unfaithful husband, Christopher. Though she has begun living with another man, and though she understands the marriage to be effectively over, she has largely followed her husband’s request that they keep their separation secret. So when Christopher goes missing during a trip to Greece, the task falls to the narrator—still his spouse, by law and by most people’s understanding—to look for him.
Arriving at the hotel where her husband has been staying, she expresses her intention to terminate this amorphous phase of their relationship: “I had decided to ask Christopher for a divorce but I had not yet committed the act, I had not looked at him and spoken the words. It was important, this act of enunciation, these words, or rather this one word—divorce—which thus far had been notably absent from our conversation, and which, once spoken, would change the course of our separation inalterably.” However, as time passes and Christopher does not return, the narrator is left to wonder what has befallen him, to worry that their separation has grown permanent, irrevocable, in ways she did not intend. A separation: the phrase remains apt, even as it has acquired an additional, more unsettling implication.
The layers of meaning enfolded in the title are emblematic of the control and sophistication Kitamura demonstrates throughout this captivating novel. Kitamura displays a sustained preoccupation with how ordinary words describe situations imperfectly, how familiar acts of expression become suddenly ambiguous when placed in new contexts. The narrator is at once Christopher’s wife and his ex-wife; she is both and neither.
In one brilliantly ambiguous scene, the narrator observes a conversation between her taxi driver and a young woman who works at the hotel, and she endeavors to categorize the nature of their relationship on the basis of the limited evidence available to her. She thinks, “It was not difficult to imagine them in a passionate embrace, the dispute—assuming it was a dispute, but I did not see how it could be anything else, the signs were unmistakable—could simply be read as a lover’s quarrel.” Upon establishing this intelligible framework for the interaction, the narrator quickly undercuts it, deciding that the two speakers “did not behave exactly like people who were sleeping together, not even like people who had slept together at some point in the past, or people who necessarily intended to in the future.” Later in this same scene, the narrator determines that the taxi driver has come to the hotel either “to comfort” the woman or to “confront her.” Such passages are characteristic of Kitamura’s writing. She renders subtle ambiguities of meaning in the most precise prose possible, which speaks to the interpretative dilemma at the heart of the novel: namely, that slight differences in expression can reflect significant divergences in meaning.
This dilemma troubles the narrator constantly, since she remains acutely aware that the part she has come to Greece to play—concerned wife—is, to some extent, a performance. As she puts it, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.” It is the shifting contours of this “wedge” that Kitamura sets herself the task of articulating.
In language that is always careful and incisive, Kitamura’s novel explores to what extent it is possible to distinguish the people we purport to be from the ones we are. As the narrator contends with the fallout from her husband’s disappearance, Kitamura weaves a gripping narrative, without ever resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. Along the way, A Separation suggests that all expressive acts are “fortified by … context, nourished by the gaze of others.”