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Book Review: Katherine Carlyle

21 March 2016
Appeared in BioNews 844

Katherine Carlyle

By Rupert Thomson

Published by Corsair

ISBN-10: 1472150619, ISBN-13: 978-1472150615

Buy this book from Amazon UK


In Rupert Thomson's novel, we are introduced to the eponymous Katherine Carlyle right at the very beginning – with the meeting of egg and sperm. We then follow the progress of her conception through IVF in the early 80s, and meet her again as a 19-year-old, this time commencing a journey of self-discovery. Katherine is living comfortably in the family home in Rome, her future assured due to a university scholarship but, despite this, she is days away from her own planned disappearance. The motivation for this is not shared, but the story begins to take shape through a series of chance meetings with strangers. Katherine is looking for a sign in all of these exchanges, constantly questioning and weighing up whether any of them are significant and should influence her next move, starting with the destination for her escape.

As it turns out, the moment arrives during a lone visit to the cinema to watch an outside viewing of 'The Passenger', her father's favourite film. Catching a snippet of conversation between a self-important English couple sitting in the row in front, she hears about a man called Klaus Frings, the breakup of his relationship and his impressive Berlin apartment on Walter-Benjamin-Platz. On this occasion the message feels right; she senses a jolt of recognition on hearing his name and 'the sense of being summoned, singled out'.

Intrigue is built, as both Katherine's thoughts and actions are ambiguous, and I did even wonder whether I had stumbled across a spy story in disguise, so desperate was I to justify the character's drive to seek meaning where there seemingly was none. However, the 'messages' and chance human interactions quickly become tiresome and are in stark contrast to the crisp, engrossing opening sequence, where we are taken through a striking description of her conception through IVF – from egg and sperm in a dish with 'four shallow wells… and the word NUNC… stamped along one edge' to an embryo lying in wait, encased in steel at -196C. The precision of the language is immediately appealing, particularly as there is no shying away from scientific terms such as 'blastocyst' and 'culture medium'. However, I did find myself troubled by these processes being described by Katherine almost as though she were conscious of it, or that it was somehow embedded within her like a memory. The scientists creating the conditions to enable her embryo to develop are 'pale-blue figures' who 'drifted high above, like clouds'. It is an interesting perspective but affixing consciousness, and thus humanising a small group of developing cells, is not something that sits entirely comfortably. Although perhaps that's the point.

Back to the present, we learn that Katherine's mother died a few years previously and also of her absentee, war correspondent father. In fact, it is during flashbacks shared with her mother – a night of dancing (and underage drinking), an off-the-cuff road trip to Switzerland during the final months of her illness, and also her death – which lent much needed poignancy to an otherwise unsympathetic main character and story. There were also a few heightened moments where Katherine is subject to violent outbursts from those she has been driven to encounter in her pursuit of the 'messages'. It's quite telling that it took moments such as these to feel at all invested in the character and her journey as, otherwise, she remains unknowable.

Throughout the novel there are references to her father's favourite film and what he might think of her disappearance, along with Katherine's beginnings as a frozen embryo. She describes herself as both 19 and 27 year old, alluding to these eight years frozen prior to implantation in her mother's womb. She has the feeling that she hasn't 'quite thawed out yet' and her heart is 'motionless, trapped, incapable of beating or feeling', and we begin to understand how her conception, her mother's death and her father's absence is impacting her as she enters adulthood.

The book has interesting things to say on the familiar themes of love, loss and grief, and the writing is quite beautiful and powerful, but I'm not convinced that any of those things could disguise what I found to be a flimsy plot. The question starting to pop into my head was: what is the point? And even now on finishing the book I'm not sure I'm satisfied with the answer. The interest created in the opening paragraphs was, for me, unfortunately not sustained past the prologue and, had I not promised to write this review, it may have been consigned to my limited list of unfinished reads.


Buy Katherine Carlyle from Amazon UK.

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