The Short Version: Although they have been separated for half a year, a woman goes to Greece in search of her husband at her mother-in-law’s request. She spends a fitful time there, attempting to find him – but what she discovers instead forever alters the state of separation she thought they had entered.
The Review: Have you seen the film The Lobster? I ask because I was unable to pull that strange, uncomfortable, wonderful film from my mind while reading A Separation. In discussing the book with a friend who liked it rather less than I did, I used this analogy and it suddenly made the book make more sense for them – perhaps it will for you, too.
There is a flatness, a purposeful arm’s-length distance cultivated by stories like this one. Some of it comes from the post-ironic state of our culture, perhaps. But some of it comes from the deadening of emotion that we must necessarily consciously engage in, in order to get through our lives. It is simply not possible to feel all the things that one should be expected to feel at their fullest; a person would short-circuit if they did. So our narrator is not worried when she cannot find her husband, when his room at the hotel appears completely and out-of-character-ly disheveled. She has moved on, in a way, already taken up with another man – she does not need to feel so strongly about Christopher, her erstwhile husband.
But this detachment – this separation, if you will (which some might call icy or downright nihilistic, depending on your personal attitudes) – also allows for the darkest kind of comedy. A scene where the narrator sits down to dinner with a female staff member of the hotel, one who she has come to discover had slept with her husband, is one of the funniest and most delightful scenes I’ve read in 2017. It is strange, uncomfortable, and yet at any moment you feel as though you might burst out laughing. Combine this with the slight stiltedness of the obsequious concierge and the oddly-friendly cab driver – not to mention the scene where the woman, our narrator, lies her way into an interview with one of Greece’s last remaining wailing women (women hired to weep and cry at a funeral) – and you get something that I think can best be described as absurd. Whether or not you laugh at the absurd is entirely a matter of preference. But just because you laugh does not mean you are not also struck – and held, really – by the bleakness just immediately outside the humor.
Unfortunately, Kitamura makes a plotting decision about halfway through the novel that removes any of the underlying tension that allows the reader to enjoy that absurdity. The narrator’s reluctance to really be looking for her soon-to-be-ex-husband (she wants to ask him for a divorce when she finds him) speaks to many larger issues: her reluctance to ask for the divorce, to tell his parents that they’ve separated, to take control of a tumultuous moment in her life. This is a moment of being removed from the world and she takes it – but the possibility of darkness around the corner, the sheer likelihood that something bad has happened or is about to happen, helps keep the book lively, much like the looming threat of being turned into an animal in The Lobster. When that darkness around the corner, that ‘something bad,’ happens, the book almost immediately collapses. Or, to put it more generously, it becomes something else entirely: a novel about grief. You could make the argument that the novel had been about that from the start and that it becomes simply a different kind of grief… but the change is so noticeable, the book transforms into something else on an essential level. It goes from deserving the blurb-y references to Highsmith and Flynn to being too sun-baked, too drawn out. The attempts to retain some stakes by asking the ‘who is responsible’ question are transparent; we know that we will never know the answer, and so the feints at presenting possible outcomes à la In the Lake of the Woods never feels like anything other than wheel-spinning.
But, then, it becomes a question of the book I wanted to read or thought I was reading versus the book that the author wrote. Interestingly, Kitamura gets at this point in a way in the early going: our narrator is a translator by trade and Kitamura gives her some marvelous considerations of what that job means psychologically. (I’m increasingly fascinated by translators and works in translation and, if I can say so, it felt like there was a whole novel about the narrator in this context that remained in the wings, background to the fully-formed life on the page.) What is the story we’re told? Is it the one we thought we were telling? What happens when you begin to put your own opinions into the translation, as it were, of that (or any) story? The jacket copy for this book pushes the thriller-y aspects; when those drop away, who is to be blamed for the resulting disappointment? Not the author, although that feels like the immediate instinct. I’m reminded again and again of a theater professor’s exhortation to not read synopses, not read reviews, not read back-cover-copy and instead try your best to approach a piece with an open mind free of context. That’s a difficult thing to do and I’m not sure it would’ve worked here – I think the novel would’ve deflated no matter what I knew or didn’t know going in – but it might’ve helped me feel less disappointed, as a reader, when the story seemed to drift away on the breeze.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The first 90 or so pages, although a little drifty, have the delightful and absurd quality of films like The Lobster: there’s something off about the whole situation and you aren’t sure whether to be tense, scared, or amused. But the remaining 150 or so pages lose the early goodwill by taking away any mystery to be found in the mysterious surroundings. What was a slightly strange look at loneliness and one kind of grief becomes, instead, a more numbed and numbing look at an all-too-familiar and universal kind of grief. This does not in and of itself make for a bad story or a bad novel, but there is the inescapable sensation of a shift during the reading of this book that makes a reader long for the stranger early going. Or at least it did for me.