‘Katherine Carlyle’ by Rupert Thomson (2014) – 293 pages
‘Katherine Carlyle’ is a cold crystalline mysterious novel. The first sentence sets it in motion. “I was made in a small square dish.” Yes, Katherine was conceived in a dish in London, and then her embryo was frozen for eight years. We are never told how she found out about her beginnings. I suppose none of the real stories of our actual physical conceptions are all that uplifting.
Now Katherine is nineteen years old and living in Rome. Her mother has died of cancer, and her father is busy traveling to world trouble spots as a journalist. Sitting in a restaurant in Rome, Katherine overhears a conversation among strangers about a certain Klaus Frings in Berlin. She takes this talk as a sign to act and she immediately goes off to Berlin to find and meet Klaus Frings.
“Every occasion – every moment trembles with a sense of opportunity. I have no idea where the next communication will come from, but I know one will come – perhaps even from the unwholesome, insidious man who is still standing beside me.”
We accompany Katherine to Berlin and Russia where she meets a series of men and women she has never encountered before. Each person she meets presents a new possibility but also perhaps a new menace. Except for Katherine and her father and her deceased mother, all of the characters in the novel are somewhat shadowy figures having no past or future in Katherine’s life. ‘Katherine Carlyle’ is a story of enchantment rather than of emotional depth or intensity. When there is a danger of becoming too closely involved with someone, Katherine leaves.
“These days, though, when I leave a room, I often have the sense that I might not return. Steps can’t always be retraced; the path through the forest closes behind me as though it was never there.”
What makes ‘Katherine Carlyle’ special is the cleanness, the icy elegance, of the prose. I didn’t buy for one minute the unstated but implied idea that Katherine’s start as a frozen embryo shaped her life and her later Arctic travels, but still I was entranced by the physical scenes and situations.
“I’m in my mother’s Alfa Romeo, racing up the slip road that leads off the autostrada. Bright sunlight flashes through the inside of the car like something splintering. A petrol station, the grating of cicadas. My mother’s eyes behind dark glasses. Blue-gray irises, black lashes. I know what she wants me to say, so I say it. Are we there yet?
She smiles. Nearly, my darling. Nearly.
Besides, few people and fewer novels get as close to the Arctic Circle as ‘Katherine Carlyle’.