‘Mystery comes through clarity’, is how Rupert Thomson recently described the effect he was trying to achieve in writing. It’s an apt phrase for his latest book, Katherine Carlyle. Thomson has previously published nine novels but has never achieved wide public recognition, partly because of their lack of uniformity. This, though, is what has attracted other writers, who admire his range, the visionary and haunting nature of his stories, the precision of his imagery, and his lack of agenda. For these, Jonathan Lethem has called him ‘a pure novelist’.
Katherine Carlyle displays all of these qualities, and may well come to be thought of as his defining book, but it is also a work with limitations. The story, told in the first person, is of a young woman conceived by IVF. A prologue informs us that as an embryo Katherine was frozen for eight years before being implanted into her mother. Following her mother’s death from cancer, her father’s long absences from home, and her consequent sense of abandonment, she has come to regard this early state of suspension, when she was made but unwanted in the world (‘like being a ghost, only the wrong way round’), as the ruling metaphor of her life.
Now, as a 19-year-old living in Rome, Katharine attends a screening of Antonioni’s The Passenger, and afterwards overhears scraps of a conversation: a man’s name and address. With only these fragmented ‘messages’ to guide her she cuts all links to her former life and takes the train to Berlin where she tracks the man down. He is beguiled by her youth and beauty and she stays with him for a while before taking up with other men, discarding them as they lose their usefulness.
Her trajectory is mysterious and, rather as in Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Katherine makes something of a private religion out of her ecstatic quest, looking for signs to guide her next move among the city’s tribes of wealthy, criminal and peripheral people. But these ‘experiments with coincidence’ are belied by a larger design, suggested in fantasies about her father’s reaction to her disappearance, and in the way her longing for him is acted out in queasy relationships with older men who want to fuck or adopt her. What seemed like a bid for freedom looks increasingly like an act of revenge. Katherine leaves Berlin, travelling to a Russian mining settlement, a blasted, Tarkovskian wasteland near the North Pole, dark for much of the day. She is warned of danger, but stays, finding a job as a cleaner in an unvisited museum, moving into an abandoned flat. In this obscure, freezing, inhospitable place, she makes herself at home.
Both The Passenger, often alluded to in Katherine Carlyle, and Frankenstein, which supplies one of its epigraphs, provide background frames for Thomson. Like the Jack Nicholson character in The Passenger, Katherine’s father is a foreign correspondent, and her behaviour — acting as if life were a game, playing at being someone else, treating others instrumentally — all resonate with Antonioni’s masterpiece about freedom’s romance, cruelty and difficult abstractness. Similarly, Mary Shelley’s tale of hubristic science and its ‘hideous progeny’, of a monster abandoned by his maker, taking revenge and seeking the extremes of the world, finds its modern incarnation in Katherine.
The collision of these narratives — one an escape from, the other a longing for, home — creates the mystery at the heart of Katherine Carlyle, and this is intensified by the lucidity of Thomson’s writing, the exactness of his metaphors and the precise individuality given to even minor characters. As with Michael Ondaatje, whose work Thomson’s resembles, there is a palpable desire to foster and protect ambiguity.
Unfortunately, Katherine Carlyle loads the weight of its mystery onto one final sentence, a trick of sorts which realigns the story. Worse, in order to create this effect, Katherine is subjected to a nasty sexual assault, jolting her out of her visionary pursuit and returning her to her senses. Thomson clearly means to break the spell under which Katherine is living, but in some odd way, by shattering the suspense, he chooses his novel over his character.