There’s more than one way to feel like a stranger in a foreign land. The pleasant way is to travel to a vacation spot, but a more unnerving sense of dislocation comes when one is a party to a faltering marriage. Katie Kitamura explores this theme in her new novel, A Separation, a quietly devastating story of a childless, London-based couple on the verge of divorce.
The unnamed narrator works as a translator, though we never learn her country of origin. When the novel begins, Christopher, the narrator’s husband, has been in Greece for a month to conduct research for a book, a general-interest “study of mourning rituals around the world”—an odd topic, the narrator thinks, for a “careless flirt” in his early 40s who has never suffered loss. When Christopher’s mother can’t reach him in Greece, she worries that something is wrong. Unaware of the couple’s six-month separation, she buys the narrator a ticket to go and investigate. What follows is a psychologically rich story involving a female hotel clerk, a “widely admired weeper” known for her musical lamentations and a murder.
Kitamura finds a clever parallel between the art of translation and marriage: the struggle to be faithful, which, as the narrator states, is “an impossible task because there are multiple and contradictory ways” of achieving fidelity. As this coolly elegant work makes clear, the definition of fealty may vary depending on whom you ask.