A Separation

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A Separation
240 pages; Riverhead Books
Katie Kitamura's unsettling third novel, A Separation, begins with an estrangement: Its nameless narrator has left her unfaithful spouse. But the familiar premise soon takes an eerie turn. The husband, Christopher, has gone missing from London, and the narrator acquiesces to her mother-in-law's plea that she travel to Greece to find him, with near-comic detachment: "She advised me to pack a bathing suit. She had been told the hotel had a very nice pool."

Once there, our mysteriously listless protagonist spends her days doing...not much. A translator whose task "is to be invisible," she likes to scrutinize others unobserved. Having pretended to everyone she encounters that she is in Greece to conduct research on mourning, the narrator visits a local woman trained in performing rituals of grief but responds to her lamentations with indifference. Kitamura traces the narrator's thoughts in sentences striking for their control and lucidity, their calm surface belied by the instability lurking beneath. Her aversion to emotion soon becomes explicit: "To love and not know whether you were loved in return, it led to the worst sensations—jealousy, rage, self-loathing—to all these lesser states." Intimacy becomes a thing jarringly outsize under her gaze. She watches a "grotesque" couple "grinding up against each other with animal passion."

Her husband's roving eye, it would seem, has taken its toll. For what most disturbs our narrator is other people's unknowability. In lieu of certainty, invention begins—almost imperceptibly—to insinuate itself into her consciousness. She casts a hotel employee as the likely object of her husband's affections, conjuring fully imagined seduction scenes that are periodically interrupted by a waiter adjusting her outdoor table's umbrella. The more the narrator tells us, the less we trust her. And the less we trust her, the more this hypnotic novel compels us to confront the limits of what we, too, can know.
— Alice Whitwham