Seeking comfort in isolation: Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson

“My disappearance is like a crime without a motive, and they’re notoriously difficult to solve, aren’t they?”

At the beating heart of Rupert Thomson’s new novel Katherine Carlyle, is one young woman’s unshakeable belief that the measure of her very existence rests in a haunting uncertainty that can only be resolved by physically retracing her origins. For the eponymous heroine of this moody and original tale, the journey is one that will lead her to the darkest coldest place she can find. She is convinced that the only way she can feel whole and find peace in the world is by locating a space that might replicate the atmosphere of the first eight years – not of her life – but of her very existence. For she was the product of IVF, back in the 1980s when the science was in its nascent stages. She is deeply troubled, resentful even, of that fact that she was left to endure many long years of cold storage in a suspended embryonic state before finally being implanted into her mother’s womb. It is this complicated obsession with her origins that drives her mission.

kitWe meet Katherine, or Kit as she is called, in Rome. Born in the UK, she moved to Italy with her parents when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. After putting up a valiant, at times ebullient fight against her illness, her mother eventually succumbed to the disease. Her father, a foreign correspondent, was on the road more than he was ever at home, so the loss of her mother was acute and left her to enter young adulthood with a false sense of maturity and an abiding loneliness that no amount of luxury or youthful glamour could assuage. As she begins to encounter random coincidences or “messages” that she interprets as signposts to a potential resolution of her deep-seated unease, she has no idea where these clues may lead. But one thing is certain, she has does not plan to make her way to Oxford where she is due to start University in the fall.

“It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing the Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness.”

With what seems like a willful complacency, Kit opens herself to all possibilities. She takes risks and discards every “lead” – many of which involve men who cross her path – the moment she decides that the clue, person or place is either misleading or has outlived its usefulness. A chance conversation overheard at the cinema about a man in Berlin sparks her curiosity and gives her a first solid lead, if seeking out a complete stranger with only a name and location can be interpreted as solid. Kit is not easily deterred. She disposes of her computer and her phone, clears out her inheritance from her savings account, and heads to Berlin, intent on erasing her tracks behind her. Once she arrives her beauty and her cool attitude serve her well but her openness to coincidence often borders on recklessness.

“That’s what life is like now. I hold myself in a constant state of readiness. Every occasion – every moment – trembles with a sense of opportunity. I have no idea where the next communication will come from, but I know that one will come – perhaps even from the unwholesome, insidious man who is still standing beside me.”

She does have an uncanny number of convenient encounters. In Berlin she manages to secure a Visa and Letter of Invitation to allow her to enter Russia. Her goal is to aim as far north as possible. Her journey is charmed. She does reach a distant and remote outport, but whether she can actually outrun the cold darkness that she holds inside herself remains to be seen.

There is a subdued fairytale quality here and if that was all this book offered it would be a lightweight offering. But there is more. As Kit narrates her journey, she looks back on her mother’s life and death. Even though a number of years have passed, the loss is still an open wound. She carries a sense of guilt, a belief that the pregnancy and birth that brought her into the world, freeing her from her frozen nearly-non-being, was the cause of her mother’s cancer. She has gone so far as to convince herself that her father also blames her. She hates him for that and wants to punish him by disappearing. Yet as she makes her way north she is continually unspooling a cinematic narrative in her head. Scripting her father’s reaction to her absence and the sketching of an increasingly elaborate imaginary pursuit seems to take a more prominent role in her mind as her own life becomes smaller and simpler.

The language is beautiful, the atmosphere is charged with energy (“The night feels brash, dramatic. Nickel plated.”) Thomson is especially adept at evoking a strong sense of place. The sounds, scents, and sights of the many cities, towns, and barren landscapes his heroine passes through are given colour, texture, and weight. A trail of vivid images is left in her wake. In Kit he has created a complicated character, a mix of wisdom and naïveté. At times I did find her voice a little jarring, as if it did not ring true to her age or gender, but as you come to see just how lost and confused she really is, it is difficult not to fall under the spell of Katherine Carlyle and the book that shares her name.

Other Press, October 2015, 304 pp                                                                               Review copy provided by publisher through NetGalley.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

6 thoughts on “Seeking comfort in isolation: Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson”

    1. Yes and no, it is a very soft line between reality as it exists and reality as perceived or interpreted by a naive, self-centred (i.e. teenage) narrator. It’s hard to say more without skewing a reader’s take on the novel. I think it would be a great choice for a book club by the way.


  1. What a fascinating premise! Don’t come across many novels that deal with IVF let along one like this one where the protagonist believes her issues stems from being a frozen embryo for 8 years. Will definitely keep this one in mind for a future read.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: