In the Critics this week

South African photography, a history of protest songs, and DH Lawrence on screen.

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, admiring "the plain wonder of the paintings in close-up, with hand-held lights providing shaky illumination", as well as Herzog's "wonderfully chewy voice, which suggests a kind of innocent but authoritative insanity, has mysterious catacombs of its own". Voices aside, the "oppressive choral music" comes in for criticism.

Rachel Cooke harks back to her "blue-stocking phase" and her loathing for DH Lawrence; nevertheless, she finds BBC4's adaptation of Women in Love "as enjoyable as something by Lawrence could be". Happily, "mysticism and navel-gazing are kept to a minimum". David Flusfeder listens to The Reunion, on Radio 4, which catches-up with veterans of the 1981 Brixton riots. "What emerged most clearly was that no two guests, not even supposed colleagues, were ever part of the same community", notes Flusfeder.

Fisun Guner admires French rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose work is the subject of two exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Wallace Collection. The former is "a superb chronological survey" which demonstrates that Watteau "can be admired for his drawings alone"; whereas the latter "justly celebrates" his achievements on canvas, too. William Wiles visits the Barbican, where an exhibition of artists who "found inspiration in the decaying Big Apple" of the 1970s is running: "none of the artists attempts to impose order on a city that no longer makes sense; they prefer playing in ruins". This week's Critic at large is NS Culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire, who reports from Johannesburg where photographers "are striving to find new ways of recording the transformation of their country".

In Books, John Gray reviews The New North: the World in 2050, by Laurence C Smith, and finds it a "consistently challenging and mind-opening exercise in futurology" cataloguing "realities of which we are aware, but that we prefer not to think about". Chris Mullin reviews The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: A Collection of Counterfactuals, edited by Francis Beckett, concluding that it's "all very interesting, but...ultimately [is a] book for anoraks"; Ben Rogers writes about Edward L Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier: "It is one thing to defend cities," Rogers writes, "quite another to understand what makes them work". Yo Zushi considers 33 Revolutions a Minute: a History of Protest Songs by Dorian Lynskey, and the history of "dissent through popular music" that it traces. However, "it is too soon to write a eulogy to a mode of songwriting that has clearly not died out", for "to those who are listening, it remains a source of strength". Lastly, Antonia Quirke talks to Peter Bogdanovich about his 1971film, The Last Picture Show, based on the coming-of-age novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry: "film and book are (almost) equally magnificent" Quirke observes.

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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