Thoughts: Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these. I’ve been full of cold, and because I’m in the middle of an editing pass on one of my own terrible manuscripts, I decided it was more important to maintain momentum on that. Writing these is easy and fun, but if I stop editing then it takes me ages to get back on the horse.

I didn’t know how to feel about this book while I was reading it, and I still don’t, really.

This one went on the list because I read a review for it and it was intriguingly mixed, because that’s apparently my thing.

This is going to mostly be a collection of things I noticed, no conclusions or neat little summaries or theme-spotting.

Maybe a little bit of theme-spotting.

So, the main character of Katherine Carlyle is very hung up on the fact that she’s an IVF baby who was frozen for eight years before being implanted. I’m not sure if this neatly informs her character or what, but I did find myself remembering about it when she spoke and didn’t sound like a seventeen year old. Was that those extra eight years talking?

I got the feeling there was some insistent meaning in there trying to get out, trying to tell me something, but I never quite managed to get to it.

While we’re talking about voice let me get to what sort of became for me a small elephant in the room – men writing women, etc, especially as it was first person and I suppose I haven’t read many men writing women so intimately recently. Was Kit written well, as a character? As a woman? Some parts of her were (I thought) refreshingly freed from female preoccupation – her travelling alone in Europe, her confidence therein – and some parts of her seemed to reflect (I thought) male ideas – her leading on and sleeping with the random men she met, That Bit at the end. I asked myself what I would have thought had she been written by a woman and came to the conclusion that I’d probably have accepted her. Does it make it different if she’s written by a man, even though every word may be the same? I’m not sure, and I’m interested in why that is. Anyway, all that’s just personal navel-gazing, really.

There’s an aimlessness to the story which reminded me a little of Auster, and I was glad that Thomson didn’t leave the plot spinning its wheels in the same place for too long. As Kit got bored, she moved on, preventing the reader from getting bored too. She claims not to know what she’s doing or looking for, but there’s a certain drivenness in her actions that implies that she does have a goal, or that some primeval instinct is pushing her forward, like a salmon up a river. She says she’s experimenting with coincidence (and later acknowledges how wanky that sounds). There were a few coincidences that influenced my reading of the novel, actually.

Firstly, we’d just seen (only the beginning of) Berlin Syndrome just before I started reading the book, and I couldn’t help but compare. It was just nice, quite frankly, to read about a woman travelling alone and not being the subject of a horror film. I mean yes, OK, That Bit At The End was jarring and really was almost a dealbreaker for me, but the way she acted and carried herself through the rest of the book was refreshing. I will freely admit that there was a reason for it – Kit had a very nihilist streak that became clearer as the story went on (culminating in That Bit) but the way it was resolved and the story ended kept the power unambiguously in her hands. She was still in control. This was still her journey. And yeah, to me that made a difference.

Secondly, when she arrived in rainy Berlin, I was sitting in rainy Frankfurt and it was perfect.

So, back to that drivenness. It really was like an instinct, revealed slowly through this slow-burning book, through the flashbacks filling in the story of her mother, as she returns to her pre-birth years almost obsessively, as she toys with and discards destinations and moves ever more north, ever colder. Is this a journey of grief? Is this about finding herself? I think she finds comfort in that cold black solitude of the Arctic Circle, that it reminds her of those mysterious embryo years.

Did she plan That Bit At The End? Or rather, was that always part of the plan? The way she thinks about it as it’s happening, it seems so – not to mention the way it’s eventually resolved. Or maybe it was just like a message from the universe like the ones she’s followed this far. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

The end is like, ice-sharp clarity falling on the dreamy slowness of the book. A flash freeze.

I loved the way she constantly created little imagined scenarios in her head as to what was happening far away. I do similar things. Her revisiting her father’s actions, placing him and the other players as actors, putting words in their mouths, changing the plot as she herself acted and changed the game board. The phone number she tore up and threw away and how she followed those pieces. I really enjoyed those little digressions.

The whole thing with her dad was strange. Was she running away or leading him somewhere? Did she know herself? It was an interesting mix of both, as she went to all this effort to hide from everyone, changing hotels, changing her name, having no itinerary at all and travelling on a whim, but then she left the note for him in Germany and I wondered if she wanted to be caught. And if not, did she just want to hurt him? Maybe the answer was in those last few daydreams of the book, of him crying over her grave, crying for her, as she said. And then finally, realising that wasn’t what she wanted. With hindsight things seem clearer, but during the story anything goes. And that’s something really impressive to get across in a book, actually. We rarely know exactly what we want or where we’ll end up, or even where we want to. Just a detail I sort of liked.

I loved Thomson’s settings. Real and detailed, and filled with sensory flavour. Kit is a nose girl. She defines places by smell, and very evocatively.

I loved the travelling. There’s just something about travelling narratives that I really enjoy. About being home and not-home, and the difference between the two. One of my favourite parts was her settling into the old cleaner’s house in Svalbard, with all of her things still in it. Basically, though I am much more boring and risk-averse, I have a lot in common with Kit.

I think overall I liked this book. It was strange and odd and weird, but I liked it. With hindsight, it’s obvious.

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