Nearly a decade ago, the novelist Katie Kitamura found herself in the “sublime” Mani, Greece, as a consultant on “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” a film featuring the controversial philosopher Slavoj Zizek. But instead of just enjoying herself, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of dread. Her father had cancer, and she felt a sense of “anticipatory grief” knowing he wouldn’t get better. He died a year later.
That tension is transformed into fiction in her third novel, “A Separation” (Riverhead). Set in the same part of the world, the story follows a nameless woman who travels to Gerolimenas in southern Greece in order to ask Christopher, her estranged husband, for a divorce. When she arrives at the hotel where he’s supposed to be staying, she discovers he’s missing.
“I wanted to think about what happens when a man disappears,” Kitamura said recently over a cup of tea in a spacious skylight-lit Clinton Hill café in Brooklyn, “and the consciousness that you’re seeing that disappearance through is a female one.”
It’s a refreshing change from the many books, movies and TV shows that center around the absence or abduction or murder of a woman. “A Separation” follows a narrator who works as a translator (potentially translating “Gods Without Men” by Hari Kunzru — a nod to Kitamura’s husband), but has a harder time interpreting her own emotions. Translators are vital to conveying a story, without having ownership. “And I think that’s very much the position she likes to be in when she tells her story,” Kitamura says. “So she is telling her story, but there’s a sense of kind of disavowing the act at the same time.”
Of her nameless narrator, Kitamura explains, “There’s something about naming that is really interesting. My son came home from preschool and he said ‘I shouted at a little girl because she called me by my name.’ And I said ‘Why did you shout at her because she called you by your name?’ And he said ‘I want to be the boy with no name,’” she recalls. “I think it’s poignant and powerful, this idea that if someone knows your name they have the ability to kind of hail you and make demands upon you.”
The narrator doesn’t want to be told what to do, and as the story unfolds it’s clear that we’re in the hands of someone who isn’t always committed to telling the truth. But neither was her husband, one of those “serial womanizers” who gets by on his ability to be charming. How much can we ever really know another person — even in marriage?
“I think there’s such a fine line in a relationship,” Kitamura says. “The role of imagination and privacy… how much space can you allow before that becomes distance? And similarly, imagination is empathy. That’s how you achieve empathy. It’s how you can be with another person and understand how they are in the world. At the same time, imagination is what’s behind jealousy and obsession and fantasy and everything that can also tear a relationship apart. So I think marriage is this crazy contract that you go into which is completely irrational.”
As much as “A Separation” is about the strangeness of marriage, it’s also about grieving. Halfway through the book, a violent act occurs that irreparably changes things. “I wanted to have a kind of undercurrent of violence. I wanted it to come out of nowhere,” Kitamura says. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the way it’s told. It’s the narrator’s voice, expressed in an insistent cadence. She’s someone who has plenty to say, but a “real paralysis of her emotional landscape.”
In one scene, the narrator visits a professional mourner, thinking her husband might have come to Greece to work on his book about mourning rituals. The mourner enacts grief for the bereaved by singing a lamentation. The author had the chance to hear real mourners when she was in Mani for the documentary, and she described the experience as being both “performance art” but also “authentic.”
It’s one duality that’s in play. “I think she doesn’t know what story she’s telling, and so that’s why there’s so much that’s undecided,” Kitamura says.
Kitamura wrote “A Separation” fairly quickly a year after her son was born. She discovered a newfound freedom in her writing after having kids and became “more willing to follow the kind of current of an idea.” This is the first book she wrote in the first person. “I felt a little bit more reckless in my writing,” she says. She also feels less self-conscious, a quality that she says is crucial to writing fiction.
Kitamura imagines going back to Mani with her husband and two children because the region “has a really particular energy.” The same could be said of her book.
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.