Bye, bye HMV - now bring back the books

The HMV closures are to be expected - it's Waterstones we should be mourning over.

The space which used to be my local Borders has turned into an Urban Outfitters. Just down the road there is a Waterstones, and just up the road an HMV.

Recent news that the company which owns these two stores is planning on closing down 60 premises around the country is mildly saddening (especially if they all turn into the horror that is Urban Outfitters), but not exactly ground-breaking news.

In fact, the forty HMV stores which are set to close as part of a cost-cutting measure barely sadden me at all, and I consider myself something of a music lover. The last time I went into a music shop (gosh, it sounds terribly quaint, doesn't it?) was probably when I bought myself B*Witched's single on cassette in 1996.

I don't own a single CD and here's why: they're inconvenient, expensive, lifeless and ugly. If I'm going for a digital format Spotify does the job brilliantly. A few clicks of a keyboard and I've got an endless supply of songs at my disposal. If I want the warm fuzzy feeling of a record turning I play my vinyl.

CDs fall somewhere in between, with no redeemable feature whatsoever. The death of Spotify would make me shudder - the imminent death of HMV makes me roll my eyes thinking "it's still around?!".

If there was ever an opposite reaction though, it would be at the thought of 20 Waterstones stores shutting down - and not just because I'm scared of pretentious clothes shops popping up in their place.

As irritatingly middle-class student-y as it may sound to fawn over the "soul" of real books (and I promise I don't say this over a Starbuck's bagel), I admit, slightly embarrassed, that when it comes to literature I am a true paper-and-pen-loving Luddite.

With the contempt that the fashion-savvy save for Topshop, or food connoisseurs feel for Jamie Oliver, I loathed high-street bookshops more than words can describe, taking myself on journeys to find dusty copies of Dostoevsky in a basement in Lewes every Sunday.

But however tragic the demise of the small bookshops and libraries may be, the reality is that they don't draw people to literature - Borders did. Waterstones, hanging by the thread of its teeth, still might.

A book on a folding screen does not in any way provide a more convenient, cheap, exciting or aesthetically pleasing experience and I am at a loss to understand people's attraction to e-readers.

Reading is just about all I have left in my life which hasn't been invaded by cold, hard robots and it helps me sleep well to know that there's nothing anyone can do to take away the pleasure I get from holding a real book.

Nothing except closing down all the bookshops.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution