Will This Marriage End in Fire?

Katie Kitamura sets fire to an already dying marriage in A Separation

Division, secrets, and lies abound in Katie Kitamura’s spare and unsettling A Separation, a novel that focuses itself on the end of marriage and the stories that exist within such a murky, and often opposing, area.

Kitamura’s novel opens in a cloud of confusion. Isabella, the unnamed narrator’s abrasive mother-in-law, can’t get her son, Christopher, who is in Greece doing research on mourning for his latest book, to respond to her messages, and she’s upset. Isabella hopes that the narrator, Christopher’s young wife, will have some news about Christopher’s whereabouts, but Isabella is sorely disappointed. The narrator hasn’t heard from him either. There is more going on in A Separation than a set of unanswered messages. In fact, there’s a big secret that no one knows. The narrator soon admits to us, “I didn’t tell her that Christopher and I had separated six months earlier, and that I hadn’t spoken to her son in nearly a month.” Isabella’s concern prompts the narrator to make an “extravagant gesture” by traveling to Greece to find her estranged husband.

Once in Greece, the narrator struggles to find her husband. She travels to his hotel but finds it and the area surrounding it to be largely desolate. She speaks with the cabdriver and the hotel attendants, but no one has clear answers regarding Christopher’s whereabouts. He’s, at least as far as anyone can confirm, missing.

The narrator does casually look for Christopher, but there’s not any real indication that she’ll care if she finds him. Her view of their marriage, and most marriages, is hardly flattering. She says, “In the end, what is a relationship but two people, and between two people there will always be room for surprises and misapprehensions, things that cannot be explained. Perhaps another way of putting it is that between two people, there will always be room for failures of imagination.” And why shouldn’t she feel this way? After all, Christopher is a flake of a man, someone the narrator describes as “always running away before he was running toward anything.” He’s also a serial cheater.

As the story picks up steam — and a surprise murder enters the picture, it seems as if the second half of the novel will transition into a thriller (or a mystery at the very least), but it doesn’t. Instead, A Separation functions as a quiet, literary kind of horror novel, told with lyrical prose and minutely-observed commentary about the fear found in failing marriages and the monsters who occasionally exists within these pairings.

A Separation is cleverly deceptive, and it possesses a strange, unsettling tone. Kitamura writes with an eeriness that is hard to shake. Near the beginning, just after the narrator lands in Greece, the novel firmly establishes itself as a macabre one. We already know there’s something weird about Christopher, but even the landscape along the coast seems ominous. There’s a certain dreariness as Kitamura describes the deserted, charred, and “black” hills. Even the beach surrounding the resort where the narrator stays seems largely indicative to the novel’s overall feeling:

“It was a harsh and rocky shore, hardly luxurious, although the landscape was more than picturesque, edging toward a bleak and extreme blankness.”

A Separation is largely void of any voice except the one that carries it, and it’s a richer novel because of it. Reading of the narrator’s intricacies and personal lamentations creates a rich, intimate story that is addictively engrossing.

The sudden ending is sure to leave some readers (including myself) feeling, at least initially, unsatisfied. But then I think about the story that came before it. Really, what else could I expect? The unknown is where much of life exists. There’s horror and there’s comfort in it. A Separation reminds us that not knowing is okay. In fact, sometimes it’s for the best.

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