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Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Riverhead Books, 240 pages, $25

When is a mystery about murder not a murder mystery? Katie Kitamura gives us a literary example of two divergent thoughts existing on the same plane.

An unnamed woman, who is living with her boyfriend in London, is asked by her husband’s mother to find him in Greece. He has been incommunicado for a few days. The catch: the woman’s husband, Christopher, has asked her to pretend that they are still living together. Awkward.

Well, the woman had been meaning to ask her husband for a divorce anyway, so she hops on a plane and arrives at the posh hotel in Mani, an obscure village five hours from Athens, where her husband is registered. But her husband is not there.

As the book continues, Christopher is spotted here and rumored there. Christopher’s weakness is for the transient affair. There must be a trail of jealous husbands, boyfriends, and broken hearts following him. It seems that one of the hotel’s receptionists is one of those broken hearts. She metaphorically bleeds all over the hotel in brooding fashion.

Kitamura’s book reads like a foreign film. Our hapless narrator does not speak Greek. She is, oddly, a translator-class French speaker, but in Greece, she is vulnerable. She is at the mercy of the concierge and taxi driver who shepherd her in her search for her errant husband. Do they have ulterior motives? There are implications, silent accusations, whirling thoughts of a conspiracy. She is a stranger in a strange land and does not know whom to trust.

Christopher, as if presaging the need, has ostensibly been doing research on mourning. He has been drawn to women paid to mourn (musically, majestically, dramatically) at funerals. The little town of Mani is the epicenter of the trade.

The unnamed woman begins her search by looking at a research route Christopher might have taken. It leads to one of the premier mourners, a woman who captures her own sadness in order to mourn for strangers. In a moving passage, the woman displays her ability to the unnamed woman. Grief builds to a crescendo and all the sadness of the world seems to gather in the little room in which they sit.

It’s almost an afterthought when a dead body, murdered by unknown hand, finally shows up. What is the protocol in a strange land? What is the language of death? Once a person is dead, does it matter who did it? Dead is dead. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” said L. P. Hartley. Greece is cradle to western civilization’s past and mythos seeps out of its caves and rocks. Perhaps death is grander there then or, alternatively, even less meaningful in the face of a grand mythical world. Maybe the individual death is not so meaningful, but the process of dealing with death brings a halt to the step of the living.

Here’s a drop of a spoiler. Although the unnamed woman — who had her own life and aspirations before her trip — arrived in Greece seeking separation, what she finds is the opposite: a life-long tie. 

Murder mystery, crime novel? Perhaps "The Separation" is a dream of one.

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