Is Kitamura’s novel a psychological thriller? Not quite, although pervasive
tension and a certain self-destructive behavior threaten to tear apart her
characters. Centering on the mystery behind the whereabouts of the narrator's husband, the book is really about a marriage in crisis. Kitamura is astoundingly good at moving the pieces around in prose
as hypnotic as it is evocative. Her unnamed narrator--a translator by profession--gets a telephone call from Isabella, her mother-in-law, who wants to know the whereabouts of her son, Christopher. Our narrator doesn’t tell Isabella that she and Christopher actually separated six months earlier; she has not spoken to him for a month.
Feeling humiliated and uncomfortable, she
is reluctant to confide to Isabella and Isabella’s husband, Mark, about the divorce that has suddenly become much more organic and more contingent than it initially appeared. It’s clear that Christopher lied to his mother when he said that they were going to Greece together. Yearning to break free from the constrains of her marriage, our narrator decides to bite the bullet and “do her last dutiful act as a daughter-in-law,” by simply going to Greece and finalizing the divorce in person.
Comfortably ensconced in a village hotel, a large stone villa about five hours drive from Athens, she discovers that there is no sign of Christopher at all in
the town, which is composed of nothing more than a series of small, squat buildings lined along a stone embankment. It is September, still hot, and the light is still bright. There’s “a faint whiff of char in the air, as if the land were still burning” from a series of fires that have ravaged the area. Seduced by her surroundings and by the dramatic vistas from the balcony of her hotel, our narrator decides to stay, perhaps another day or two, unexpectedly overwhelmed by
having followed her estranged husband to another country: “I felt at once mortified for him and for myself.”
Christopher was due to check out in the early morning hours but has not been seen since. Apparently he hired a driver and has “taken a trip somewhere.” After a panicked phone call from an increasingly unhinged Isabella, begging her daughter-in-law not to come back until she finds her son, she tells Kostas, the hotel manager, that he can pack up the rest of Christopher’s things. Haunted by dark secrets, she begins to paint a dispassionate portrait of her marriage: Christopher’s infidelities, his expert womanizing, and how he always seemed to play the role of wealthy, sophisticated, unscrupulous tourist in places where everything around him appeared to be “essentially disposable.”
What Lucy doesn’t anticipate is that Christopher’s presence in this village has awakened stirrings of lust in the heart of Maria, a local girl who works behind the villa’s front desk. As a sullen flash of anger darkens Maria’s features, our narrator recognizes that Christopher perhaps bit off more than he could chew. Christopher’s penchant for serial womanizing has not gone unnoticed by Stefano, our narrator’s driver. A man of “barely suppressed rage,” Stefano clearly loves Maria, and he also has a reason to hate Christopher. One morning, our narrator spies Maria and Stefano arguing. Stefano’s fear of Maria’s attraction to Christopher
obviously unnerves him. Stefano is “strangulating his emotions” as Maria attempts to ensure that Christopher is “the truly desired man.”
While she spends much of her time pondering the nature of desire, Kitamura’s narrator must learn to toe the fine line between achieving independence and letting go of marital responsibility. After
we learn about Christopher's fate, the novel takes on a far more sinister tone. At first, his wife appears to hold all
the cards. When Isabella and Mark arrive, she realizes that the entire exercise may have been devised in order to allow her to elaborate on the image she already had of Christopher. Isabella (and to a lesser extent Mark) are devastated, wracked by cold grief and by rage at this village and this situation caused by their son’s stupid compulsions, a sexual addiction that went beyond pleasure “into something far more terrible,” into a sterile, unapologetic landscape where desire is too often unreciprocated as it gathers and pools, slowly becoming toxic.
The novel is beautiful and poetic and builds into a stunning climax in which Kitamura’s heroine is revealed to care little for her husband, even when she admits that her love could have saved him: “How many times we are offered the opportunity to rewrite and reconfigure our present personas.” Moody, distinctive, and laced with a hidden sense of danger, A Separation proves that the purging of a marriage is subject to all kinds of revision--especially here, in this barren and burnt and haunting landscape where the past often dictates the future.