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'A Separation' Unconventional but Ingenious

"A Separation," by Katie Kitamura.
"A Separation," by Katie Kitamura. By Courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group
By Ha D.H. Le, Crimson Staff Writer

“A Separation” begins with an ending—or at the very least, a partial one. In Katie Kitamura’s latest novel, the unnamed narrator agrees to separate from her unfaithful husband Christopher in an arrangement known only to them. It is one secret of many in a story rife with affairs and murder. But secrets are not the only concern for Kitamura. Instead the author defies potential genre conventions to weave a story that carefully touches upon the unanswered questions surrounding grief, love, and duty. Though certain narrative techniques, such as ambiguous dialogue and potentially unreliable narration, might deter some readers, “A Separation” nevertheless handles its subject matter with grace and integrity. Kitamura’s newest work might not appeal to everyone’s tastes, but for those willing to engage deeply with its content, it proves to be a thoughtful and ingenious read.

Within the first few pages, Kitamura propels the book’s narrative into mystery when the narrator’s mother-in-law calls inquiring about Christopher’s whereabouts. Tasked with locating him, the narrator journeys to a hotel in Gerolimenas, a remote Greek village where he was last seen, to find him and finalize the divorce. What she discovers is not Christopher, however, but enigmas surrounding the village residents and her marriage’s complicated nature. Yet while Christopher’s disappearance is a source of puzzlement, Kitamura pulls the story away from the suspenseful thriller that it could be. Instead she chooses to weave a psychological tale that focuses on the narrator’s observations and conflicts.

The decision is a gamble—an excursion into a protagonist’s psyche might read as less urgent or engaging than a work overflowing with action—but “A Separation” is a novel defined by technical and narrative risks that end in mixed results. Kitamura refuses to use quotation marks when writing dialogue, meshing different speakers into one paragraph and sometimes forgoing attributions. “The waiter brought my drink. Would I be needing anything else? No, I was fine. Let me adjust the umbrella, the sun is very hot. Before I could stop him he had dragged the heavy stand several feet.” So Kitamura describes a conversation between the narrator and a waiter—the format typical of the rest of the novel. By refusing to define the start and end of each character’s speech, Kitamura requires diligence and attentiveness from the reader. In the same scene, she fluidly incorporates the narrator’s fantasy of Christopher having an affair with the hotel worker into her interactions with the waiter. “I ordered a drink. It was hot, sweat pooled in the crevice of my collarbone. He grasped her wrist, pressing first his thumb and then his forefinger against her skin,” the narrator says. Such a move can either alienate or engross. Yet despite the potentially negative effect, Kitamura’s style is commendable for its unabashed embrace of experimentation and ambiguity.

In fact, ambiguity pervades the entire novel. The first person makes it easier to see the other characters through the narrator’s eyes, which are potentially biased or faulty filters. “I became more and more convinced that nothing concrete had taken place between them, she seemed to me more like a lovestruck teenager than a scorned lover,” the narrator notes, as she eats dinner with a woman she originally suspected was her husband’s mistress—her judgment here, however, is quickly proven wrong. The scene reveals the narrator’s fallacy in evaluating people, one that might affect views of all the characters that she describes. Such moments impair the trust between the narrator and reader, and often lead to confusion and uncertainty. As with Kitamura’s writing style, this choice might alienate certain readers. Yet the tactic is also masterful. The reading experience becomes an extension of the ambiguity within the text itself in which uncertain infidelities, conflicting emotions, and questionable motives all play a role. And by allowing ambiguity to pervade the writing style, the narrative voice, and the plot, Kitamura emphasizes the idea more powerfully—it is prevalent, found everywhere. The novel feels raw, completely honest about the ways in which the world’s interactions are often messy and difficult to interpret. This characteristic is what ultimately elevates “A Separation” into must-read territory. The thematic gains outweigh the potential turn-offs.

The novel ends unconventionally. Many questions remain unresolved, and many of the narrator’s beliefs are shattered without a clear replacement. It is a conclusion befitting a novel that revels in uncertainties, both within the story and within the reading experience. “A Separation” might strike some as impenetrable, difficult even, but take a moment to immerse yourself in Kitamura’s latest melody—unpack the narrator’s complex psychology, consider the language’s cadence and individuality, revel in its themes of love and loss—and you’ll find a work that is provocative and impossible to forget.

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