Rupert Thomson’s unsettling, hypnotic Katherine Carlyle would be easy to overlook during the busy fall book season. Thomson, a British writer who has published nine previous novels, has not climbed his way onto any major awards list this year, nor is he a highly touted favorite or up-and-coming darling of the New York publishing world. But Katherine Carlyle — spare, clean, almost sterile and yet still compulsively readable — is startling and refreshing in its originality, framing a young woman’s search for identity in the wake of tragedy in a compelling and unusual way.
Many great novels open with an origin story, but Katherine’s life begins in a far different place from, say, David Copperfield’s (although there is some question as to whether she, like young Mr. Copperfield, will turn out to be the hero of her own life.) “I was made in a small square dish. The temperature was 37 degrees Celsius, like the inside of a human body. Like a womb. The dish had four shallow wells or indentations,” she tells us. “My mother’s eggs were placed in the wells, no more than three in each, and then my father’s sperm was introduced. ... Something of hers, something of his — a precious pinch of each. Pale-blue figures drifted high above, like clouds.”
But Katherine — or rather, the embryo that will become Katherine — isn’t implanted immediately. Instead, she stays frozen for a long time. “I was stored in a squat steel barrel, vacuum-lined like a thermos flask and filled with liquid nitrogen. ... I was suspended in a bath of cryoprotectant and assorted nutrients, and exposed to a temperature that was constant and extreme — minus 196 Centigrade.”
This yearslong wait haunts Katherine now. University bound, she lives in Rome, still reeling after her beloved mother’s death. She is sure her father, a foreign correspondent who’s off on assignment, blames her for her mother’s cancer — the IVF was a factor — and so instead of preparing for school she plans to vanish. A sort of magical thinking guides her: She charts her course by random signs and overheard conversations, turning casual comments into portents and design. It’s a precious sort of trick, but Thomson’s matter-of-fact, no-frills style makes it not only plausible but also invigorating. Katherine often seems unaware of the danger she’s in, but Thomson understands, and a menace settles quietly over the book.
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Katherine’s journey takes her to Berlin, then steers her north into Russia, to the city of Arkhangelsk. But even that hiding place proves dangerously exposed, so she sets her sights on the remote Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, about 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole. “In January the average temperature is minus 16 Celsius, but the lowest recorded temperature is 46 below. The name Svalbard means ‘cold edge’ or ‘cold coast.’ It’s hard to describe the way these earnest factual sentences affect me. ... I veer between rushes of adrenaline — a roller coaster thrill — and a sweetness that is laced with pain, a delicious cloying poignancy. What it resembles most closely — what it actually feels like — is nostalgia.”
From there, Katherine presses forward to the coldest and loneliest place, the closest she can find to the vacuum-lined thermos flask in that squat steel barrel — Ugolgrad, a desolate Russian mining settlement where the book’s climax takes place. Here, Thomson’s chilly style doesn’t quite gel with the high price Katherine pays for her hard-won epiphany, which feels a bit simplistic after all that’s come before. Still, after he draws us skillfully into Katherine’s mysterious quest, he renders us unable to look away.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.