Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson

This novel has the spine-tingling atmosphere of an episode of Netflix’s original series Sense8. Chance, coincidence, gambles, even miracles figure into the actions of a young woman seeking to make sense of her life and her mother’s death. The distinct sense of foreboding that pervades the pages comes partly from us: we are involved, judging the character’s choices against our own. The main character cannot be sure how this will play out, either. "I feel new. I’m a blank slate. A gamble…" This is a teenaged alienation story that does not run to drugs, alcohol, nor sexual perversion.

Katherine (Kit) Carlyle was an IVF baby who had been kept as a frozen embryo for eight years before she was implanted in her mother’s uterus with two other embryos. She was the one who survived, and from her years waiting in limbo, we know her conception and birth was a kind of gamble. Kit is nineteen and living in Rome when we meet her. Somehow Kit claims a kind of DNA memory of that pre-time of frozen suspension, and finds herself going in search of those origins when she feels abandoned by her parents--her mother to death, and her father to a peripatetic career.

Kit is a woman who doesn’t always have the motivations we associate with a woman of her wealth, beauty, and intellect. She is young but her naïveté is paired with a world consciousness that few people over thirty can claim. She also has waist-length hair. When I pointed out to friends that this seemed a male fantasy, one man said “not so fast: women with very long hair tend to obsess over it.” It turns out that hair is like a talisman in this novel, a touchstone upon which feelings, actions, and behaviors turn.

Author Rupert Thomson has published nine other novels, one described by critic Jonathan Miles writing for as "disquieting" for the horrific scenes of sexual abuse depicted. Thomson, now sixty years old, has been praised for his sentence craft and is often in the running for major literary prizes. One suspects it is his unusual sense of story rather than his writing talent that advances other authors over him to win prizes. In this novel, for instance, the palpable sense of doom and danger does not often play out: we readers are bloodied but whole. There is a rape scene late in the novel, but it is not graphic and is only implied.

More disturbing are the dreams and fantasies of the young woman, who likes to imagine her father searching for her, trying to find her. She writes letters to him, and despite accusing him of not loving her enough, she dreams that he will feel anxious moments trying to locate her with the few clues she has left behind. The author adds to our sense of unease by italicizing a sentence that could only be said by an older person to a younger one: "Even negative experiences contribute to the sum of who you are." There is a sense of inevitability about pain and exposure, though Thomson does not do his worst, to Kit nor to us, in this novel.

Thomson’s work may simply be too uncomfortable to win the prizes, but this novel stands as an entry in the new literature being written that gives us a sense of being untethered in time and space. Thomson’s characters appear to acknowledge and accept the many mysteries that come with interactions with new people. It remains an open question whether his reading public wants that, too.

**Rupert will be participating in a series of events in the US this fall. Please see below for a list of readings and interviews for the novel KATHERINE CARLYLE.**


Twin Cities Literary Festival – 10/17

Bookcourt – Talk, Q&A, Signing – 10/19/15
Greenlight Bookstore in conversation with Rebecca Mead – Talk, Q&A, Signing – 10/20/15
Center for Fiction in conversation with w/ Rebecca Carol – Talk, Q&A, Signing –10/22/15

Boston Book Festival – 10/24/15

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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