To all appearances, they were a happy couple — attractive, financially comfortable, together eight years. When their relationship came apart, they kept quiet about it: no big announcement to family or friends, no actual plan to divorce. Theirs was a gradual dissolution, marked by ambiguity.
“You should have the flat, if it comes to that,” Christopher, an accomplished charmer and habitual cheater, said to his wife as separation loomed. Then he moved out, and after a while so did she, setting up house elsewhere in London with Yvan, the mutual friend she fell for fast after the split.
But as far as pretty much everyone else knows in “A Separation” — Katie Kitamura’s slow-burn psychological novel, which rakes the embers of betrayal to find grief smoldering underneath — the unnamed narrator is as tightly wedded to Christopher as she ever has been.
When her worried mother-in-law, Isabella, calls six months into the breakup to ask why she can’t get in touch with Christopher, our heroine has no idea where he is. But Isabella does: He’s in the remote Mani Peninsula in southern Greece, and she would like her daughter-in-law to fly there and make sure he’s all right.
Assuming the role of dutiful spouse, off our narrator goes, trailing him to a luxury hotel in a coastal village, where he has already gotten entangled with at least one local woman. What does our heroine care about that, though? She intends at last to ask her husband for a divorce. Yet he seems to have gone missing from the hotel. Which, she reasons, is nothing to worry about. Thus she waits.
Christopher, a pampered sort-of writer with a work ethic that’s halfhearted on a good day, traveled alone to Greece, ostensibly on a research trip. His next book, which has been in progress nearly forever, is about mourning rituals, and the Mani has a tradition of professional keeners, hired to perform the act of grieving.
Our narrator, we gradually realize, is unwittingly deep in her own mourning for their marriage, and nearly anhedonic as she moves through a charred Greek landscape where wildfires recently raged. She and Christopher, blissfully in love as they once were, treated their union with less than tender care, and they’ve let it slip their grasp just as recklessly.
She seems numbed now; the parts of her that might have hurt feel little but resentment. If she recognized her sorrow over the loss of him, she wouldn’t know how to express it. She stands at a buffering distance from her own pain.
So it is a jolt when, halfway through this slender book, another kind of grief comes into play. Christopher is discovered dead. Murdered? Quite possibly, perhaps by a lover’s jealous suitor.
It is an absorbing tale, marred only by Kitamura’s over-fondness for commas where other punctuation might do — a preference that fosters a fluid forward motion but can be an obstacle to meaning, too.
Kitamura (”Gone to the Forest”) peoples her novel with characters we can’t be meant to warm to. Even when Christopher’s parents arrive in Greece, undone by his death, his father is still a xenophobe, his mother a terrible snob. We don’t care, really, about Christopher or even how he died, mystery though it is. Well primed by his ex, we understand that he was shallow and secretive, untrustworthy and unserious.
Except that he was other things as well. Except that she loved him anyway, and — it’s suddenly apparent, to her as well as to us — still does. A translator by trade, acutely sensitive to the need for textual fidelity, she may have skewed the narrative she’s been telling herself. The roles she thought she was faking — loyal wife, anguished widow — are truer than she understood, and knowing this will change her.
At some point in her exploration of Mani, our narrator encounters one of the professional mourners, an elderly woman who draws from her own well of suffering each time she performs her job. This, she explains, is why she has gotten better at it with age.
“You need to have a great deal of sadness inside you,” she says, “in order to mourn for other people, and not only yourself.” Our heroine is soon well on her way.
By Katie Kitamura
Riverhead, 229 pp., $25
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.