As a translator, the narrator of Katie Kitamura’s complex examination of a dead marriage, A Separation, has a unique awareness of what is meant, what is interpreted, and what is going on underneath the surface of what people say to each other. In the opening pages of A Separation, we learn that our narrator has been separated from her husband for six months and that he has gone to Greece without her. We also learn that the husband and wife have agreed not to tell anyone that they’ve separated—which makes things very difficult when the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law and finds out that said husband has gone missing.
After that call, our unnamed narrator takes off for Greece (but is also sent by the mother-in-law, who booked everything in advance). Our narrator, who is rather passive about a lot of things, is not surprised to learn that her husband has been flirting with women all over the souther Peloponnese. She’s mildly bothered by the husband’s infidelity, but she already knew about other affairs and, besides, they’re going to divorce anyway. It might annoy some readers at how little the narrator actually does in A Separation. Rather than trying to dig up leads about where her wayward husband went, she lets information come to her.
While she makes a terrible investigator, our narrator is very good at observing people around her. She’s almost obsessive about teasing meaning from gestures, tones of voice, body language, and word choice. This hyper-attention to details means that she knows a lot more about what’s going on behind peoples’ speech than they’d like to admit. She also turns that attention on herself and her uncomfortable family situation. She keeps maintaining the fiction that she and her husband had not been separated, romantically and physically, even after a hard truth is revealed to her in-laws.
Towards the end of A Separation, this situation and the narrator’s thoughts about it got a lot more interesting as she reflects on the tension between the fictions we prop up to avoid disappointing or angering people we esteem and what’s really going on. Other readers might think of the narrator as a coward for the way she constantly ducks confrontation. I don’t think “coward” is the right label. The best word I can think of for the nameless narrator is passive. She’s not so much avoiding conflict as trying to detach from her unhappy in-laws and the social conventions that she’s still propping up.
I suspect that only very specific kinds of readers will actually enjoy reading A Separation. I’m not one of them. I have a hard time with characters who let things happen to them and let little unkindnesses pile up. I’m also not too keen on literary fiction about broken marriages. I picked this book up because I thought there would be an intriguing mystery for the narrator to pick apart. A Separation is more mundane than I wanted. What made me carry on was the intellectual puzzle of polite fictions that keep a family functioning in spite of underlying turmoil. Also, it’s a short book.