‘Katherine Carlyle’ by Rupert Thomson – From Frozen Embryo to Frozen Arctic


‘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’.


Grade: B+


5 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve only read one book by this author, Soft, which I recall liking very much. He sounds like quite a versatile writer, able to turn his hand to a number of different subjects and moods.



    • HI Jacqui,
      This was my first Rupert Thomson novel. The prose was really good, but the story seemed a little remote, because there was no past or future with any of the characters besides Katherine Carlyle. Another reader might have a totally different spin on this novel.



  2. I received an ARC of this book from the publisher but the topic didn’t interest me very much. Maybe I will give it a try after reading your review. Thanks!



  3. I read this book around the time it came out and it was my first novel by this author. The thing that really bothered me was the voice – Katherine sounded like a middle aged man trying to sound like a 19 year-old woman! What redeemed it was the landscapes and descriptive writing once she headed north into Russia. I found myself googling all the settlements she stopped in to get a sense of her journey, I was so intrigued. And I thought the ending was perfect.



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