Sad-eyed lady: Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein
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A walking target: The Honourable Woman on BBC2

Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

The Honourable Woman
BBC2

I saw the first episode of Hugo Blick’s new eight-part series, The Honourable Woman (Thursdays, 9pm), a while ago; the BBC held a ritzy screening in a hotel at which poor Maggie Gyllenhaal appeared in full evening dress only to be greeted by the sight of dozens of TV hacks (and a few minor celebrities) looking mildly crumpled in their jeans. At the time, I was gobsmacked by it. I watched open-mouthed, anxiety and amazement combining to induce in me, once the hour was up, the kind of hunger hotel canapés could do nothing to assuage (I ate six as I ran for the door and then headed swiftly in the direction of the nearest steak). But would it hold up on a small screen?

In your service, I watched it again a few days ago and, yes, I was every bit as gripped. The second episode – I watched that in your service, too – contains one or two bum notes (the first has none). But the momentum, richness and complexity are maintained. The Honourable Woman will win every award going and when it ends in the final days of summer, its fans, who will be legion and messianic in its cause, will have to take up needlepoint or mah-jong. Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal, with a very good British accent) is a vastly rich and influential woman. She runs a multinational business empire, inherited from her father, Eli, a “lion of Israel” who was assassinated when she was a girl, but she also does good works: terror, she believes, thrives in poverty, for which reason she is determined to lay fibre-optic cables all over the West Bank, the better to connect all the hospitals and schools that she helped to build. Thanks to this, she has just been ennobled by the British government and is now known as Lady Stein of Tilbury in the county of Essex.

However, she has enemies and dangerous secrets; both are about to make their presence felt in her life. This is inescapable. In one sense, her elaborate security detail and even the sealed panic room in which she sleeps – it lies at the centre of her stuccoed London house, a prison cell inside a gilded cage – are utterly futile. On her alabaster forehead, just beneath her gamine fringe, there is a target. Someone, somewhere, will surely hit it soon.

Assassinations, kidnappings, MI6, the FBI, flashbacks to Rafah in the Gaza Strip – such a lot is going on and yet Blick’s script never feels overloaded. He makes demands of the viewer with long speeches, opaque conversations and teasing, highly choreographed sequences in which characters move deliberately around London like chess pieces on a board but the suspense is always enough to keep you onside.

Every detail is perfect (Blick directed, too), from the stoop of Nessa’s father in the old home movies she watches to the way she eats her TV supper, her salad plucked between thumb and index finger. People under-react rather than overreact to horror, fear having invaded their hearts so long ago; they’re weary with it, dead behind the eyes. And all of this is shot through with a kind of bottomless plangency, for we know that even if things do turn out right for Nessa, her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), and their Palestinian friend Atika (Lubna Azabal), the situation will never be resolved – or not in my lifetime. As our new baroness likes to joke at fundraising dinners, if a bunch of earth-destroying aliens asked the Israelis and the Palestinians to give up their arms, well, it would be the little green men you’d wind up feeling sorry for.

The performances – with the exception of Janet McTeer, who appears in episode two and seems to think she’s in Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson, are extremely fine. The quiet solemnity of Buchan’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances suggests both their characters’ great privilege (they seem embarrassed by their incredible wealth) and their miserable fates (a lifetime worrying about what might happen in the moments between the front door and the back seat of a bulletproof Mercedes). And special plaudits must go to Stephen Rea as an about-to-be-retired British spy. He puts in a master class in the patrician, the pernickety and the downright peculiar.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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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