SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"A Separation" is Katie Kitamura's new novel about a woman who leaves her husband who then disappears. Will he ever really leave her? The young woman and her husband live in London and separate without telling friends and family. One day, the young woman gets a phone call from Isabella, her mother-in-law, who says her son Christopher has disappeared overseas from a small town in Greece. He is married to the woman. She must go find him.
The young woman goes to Greece and finds packs of wild dogs, hillsides of charred trees and darts from the eyes of a hotel receptionist. "A Separation" is the latest novel from Katie Kitamura, author of the highly praised novels "The Long Shot" and "Gone To The Forest." She joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
KATIE KITAMURA: Thanks for having on.
SIMON: Did I miss a name in the book, or does the woman not have one?
KITAMURA: No, the narrator is unnamed. It was something that I - I think I only realized when I was maybe halfway through writing the book that I hadn't given a name to my narrator.
SIMON: OK. Any reason why?
KITAMURA: It links back to this question of, how do we come to know people, and how do we come to know characters in books? And I would argue that we know people primarily through understanding the way they see the world.
And the one thing we know about this character is a quality of her observation. We don't know what she looks like. We don't know where she comes from. We don't even know her name. But what we do know about her is her way of seeing. And I think as I continued writing the book, I knew that that was a way I wanted to build a sense of intimacy between the reader and my narrator so that even though we don't know her name, we still have a sense of how her mind works.
SIMON: Why don't she and Christopher just announce that they're separated? Because, I mean, she's already living with some new guy.
KITAMURA: You know, it's a - a big part of the book for me is about the kind of unknowability of other people. People remain unknowable to us, even people that we're very close to. And I think the same goes for our own selves. We act in ways that are mysterious to ourselves. I think for me, in the heat of that moment when her husband, Christopher, asks her not to tell anybody about their separation, she agrees without understanding why. And then she decides to keep her promise. And that is a connection between those two characters that propels the narrator through the book.
SIMON: I made note of one of your many very deft lines. (Reading) Christopher had always known how to make an entrance. It was his departures that needed work.
SIMON: Am I wrong to see this as an elegant putdown?
KITAMURA: I think it begins as an elegant putdown, as you say. It begins as almost a kind of one-line joke about a charismatic man who's very good at coming in, you know, entering the stage and seizing attention but not so good, maybe, at taking care to say his goodbyes as he goes. And then it becomes something that's - I think - much more melancholic, that has to do with the narrator's inability to really achieve any kind of closure because she hasn't been able to say goodbye to her partner.
SIMON: It's a little bit off the main narrative line, but I was fascinated by the fact - at one point, she speculates that Christopher might be in Greece to study professional mourners. I hadn't thought of that before.
KITAMURA: Yes. Yes. I mean, so professional mourners are part of a very ancient practice that still exists in parts of Greece and indeed around the world. And it's a practice in which the mourners - and they're often women - are paid to issue lamentations at funerals. And they kind of accompany the body on the way to its progression to the next world. And these performances, when you hear them in person, they have an incredibly strange and almost uncanny quality, you know. They're really somewhere between a set musical performance and then a much more wild and uncontained kind of weeping or keening.
And one of the reasons I was interested in professional mourners is because I think in our culture, we're under so much pressure to perform our emotions in ways that are readily legible to other people. But in my experience, grief in particular is not something that can be neatly packaged or expressed. It's a - it's an incredibly messy and unruly emotion. And so the practice of professional mourners means that there's someone else (laughter) expressing your grief for you in a recognizable form that everybody can understand. And that gives you the privacy to kind of grieve in the way that you you need to and grieve in your own way.
SIMON: I'm going to try and be obscure about this.
KITAMURA: Oh, OK. I think I know what's coming (laughter).
SIMON: Well, midway through the novel...
SIMON: ...Da-da-dum (ph) - there's a murder. A lot of novels - a lot of novelists would use the mystery of a whodunit as a kind of lure to bring the reader through the rest of the story.
SIMON: I'll leave it there.
KITAMURA: Right. I mean, so that is probably the primary big piece of plot that happens in the book. One of the things that I was thinking about a lot when I was writing the book was if it would be possible to write something that really was about the mind and the consciousness of the narrator and where the real so-called plot developments that happen aren't things that happen out in the world. They aren't bits of action - somebody arrives, somebody leaves, somebody gets killed, somebody robs a bank, whatever it is.
And so I think the most dramatic shifts that happen in this story have to do with changes in perception on the part of the narrator, the way she comes to understand less and less of what she feels towards Christopher. To me, those are the most important and dramatic shifts. So that's why, in a way, I didn't want to use the kind of conventional plot device of a kind of mystery, although I think, in a lot of ways, I did try to steal the kind of tension...
KITAMURA: ...And the sense of dread of a mystery.
SIMON: No, absolutely - until the very last page. You're going - well, I won't register my reaction. But until the last page, you're looking for the answer.
SIMON: Toward the end - again, without giving anything away - the woman seems to learn the most from the character that you might least expect her to learn the most from - I'll say it - her mother-in-law.
KITAMURA: Ah, OK. Yes (laughter).
SIMON: How do they begin to see each other, in the absence of the son and the husband, in the way they didn't before?
KITAMURA: I think it's a fact that they are the two people who loved Christopher the most and who also saw him most clearly. I think Christopher as a character is a character of charisma and seduction. And part of that seduction is not allowing yourself to be seen. Both the mother and the narrator do not have illusions about Christopher. And I think that clarity about who he was and the sense that they are, therefore, the people who will carry his memory in some way is what will ultimately tie them together on a kind of emotional level, I suppose.
And then on a strictly practical level, there's a - you know, I think about it a lot, how, often, it's a kind of - the idea of women being the ones who mourn, whether it's Lady Capulet or whether it's Antigone or whether it's the professional mourners who are so often women - in a way, they are the ones who will do the work of mourning. So yeah, I think that will be the bond that pulls them together.
SIMON: Katie Kitamura - her new novel, "A Separation." Thanks so much for being with us.
KITAMURA: Thank you, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAKON KORNSTAD'S "OSLO")
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