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Rupert Thomson: Katherine Carlyle

Rupert Thomson’s novels tend to be dark and it is that that has attracted me to them, starting with his superb first novel, Dreams of Leaving. They all tend to be somewhat different, with the common theme of a dark and mysterious setting and someone struggling to escape it, not always successfully. This one is no different with the heroine called, naturally, Katherine Carlyle (though known as Kit), trying to escape. Unfortunately, it is never quite clear what she is trying to escape.

We first meet her some eight years before she is born. Her parents had decided to have IVF and her father had produced a sperm sample which, for some reason, is kept frozen for eight years before being introduced into her mother. She knows this and seems to be bitterly resentful of it. We first meet her as an adult when she is nineteen. She lives in Rome with her father, who is a TV journalist, reporting from some of the world’s conflicts and, as a result, is often absent. Her mother had contracted ovarian cancer some years before. She seemed to have recovered but felt the need to live as though it was only a temporary reprieve. She persuaded her husband to move to Rome (from England) so Kit had lived in Rome for ten years. The cancer reappeared and she died very quickly after that. (Kit blames herself, to some degree, as it seems that the IVF might have caused the cancer and she also feels that her father blames her, as well. There is some evidence for this.) Kit is planning to go to Oxford to read French and Italian but, in the meantime, she seems to be living something of a party life, sexually active.

At the beginning, Kit seems to be looking out for signs. Everything she finds is a sign – keys, coins, and playing-cards. She finds a piece of paper with a phone number on it and is sure that the number is for her. She phones the number but hangs up when a woman answers, with a baby crying in the background. In a changing cubicle in a shop she finds a brochure for a Paris hotel so she heads off to the hotel but whoever is meant to be meeting her does not. She does meet a man. They quickly have sex but then go their own way. He is not the one. Then, in a cinema, she hears an English couple talking about a man called Klaus Frings, who lives in Berlin and whose girlfriend has just broken up with him. They even mention the name of the square where he lives. This is clearly a sign or even the sign. She packs up her things, empties her bank account, throws her mobile phone into the Tiber and, without leaving any message for her father, sets off for Berlin.

But Frings is the beginning, not the end. She does track him down and even manages to get him to put her up in his expensive flat in Berlin. Meanwhile, she makes a couple of other strange encounters, one a strange young man in a supermarket who sends her on a mysterious mission and another a brash American who wants to adopt her. The brash American, J. Halderman Cheadle, introduces her to some Russians who are engaged in dubious dealings and she now realises it is time to move further on. She uses the term exitlessness (which comes from T J Clark’s Farewell to an Idea, quoting Malevich) as something she feels she has to guard against. The Russians manage to get her a visa for northern Russia, though there is a price to pay. Her plan is to go to Arkhangel’sk – why is not clear. She leaves a letter for her father with someone whom, she suspects, he will track down, and sets off. In Arkhangel’sk, she tells the travel agent I’m looking for a place that is very far away. Obscure. The travel agent proposes Ugolgrad, a fictitious Russian settlement on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. And there she goes, with some difficulty, ending up by taking the last boat out (in October) before next year’s Spring thaw. The town is ugly, life is hard, very hard, and it is very, very cold.

While the idea of escaping from the world to a very remote region is hardly new either in literature or real life, Kit’s motives are unclear. Is she looking for someone, as she implies at one point? Is this to do with the feelings of guilt about her mother’s death or wanting to escape her father who, she feels, blames her for her mother’s death? Is it connected with the bitterness she feels at being kept waiting eight years before being given life? Is it about exitlessness and, if so, what happens when you have got to the very end and there is no more exit? And why does she just leave clues for her father? Does she want him to find her and, if so, why not tell him? Is Ugolgrad what she really wants? Of course, good books and good authors do not have to provide answers and Thomson has a track record of leaving us somewhat bemused by the motives of some of his characters.

Apart from the very feeble ending, I thought this quite an interesting book, even if a mite perplexing, but I would not say it was one of his best.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Corsair