Despite having 10 acclaimed books under his belt, English writer Rupert Thomson is nowhere near as well-known in the United States as he deserves to be. Each of his novels offers something refreshingly or daringly different, whether a dystopian vision of Great Britain ("Divided Kingdom," 2005), or intrigue in 17th-century Florence ("Secrecy," 2013) or, in the chilling "Death of a Murderer" (2007), a dark study of love and evil. What links each of Thomson's books are bouts of supreme strangeness and profound disquiet, and the author's relentlessly cool, controlled, immaculate prose.
If there is any justice, then Thomson's latest novel, "Katherine Carlyle," will raise his profile. We are lured in by its opening line: "I was made in a small square dish." Katherine, Thomson's heroine, informs us she was conceived by in vitro fertilization — stored as a frozen embryo for eight years before being implanted in her mother.
Thomson fast-forwards 19 years, whisking us from a London hospital to Rome, where Katherine lives with her aloof father; her mother has died of cancer. Instead of heading off to Oxford University, Katherine drops her phone into the Tiber, dumps her laptop under a bridge and disappears to forge her own way.
Cut loose from family and friends, Katherine starts in "gritty, grainy, gray" Berlin, where she tracks down a man whose name she overheard from strangers in Rome. "I'm experimenting with coincidence," she tells him. From then on, she allows herself to be buffeted by fate. People are messengers; cities are staging posts; arbitrary comments are signals. She recklessly places her trust in random men: an American "philanthropist" who wants to adopt her, a Ukrainian who sells icons, and more than one love-struck German.
When Berlin has served its purpose — and when it has become too dangerous for her — she ventures north, first to Moscow and then to the outer rim of the Arctic Circle, but any hope she has for seclusion and peace of mind is short-lived. Soon character and reader begin to wonder if her good fortune has finally run out.
"Katherine Carlyle" could easily have ended up a rambling, meandering travelogue. However, Thomson charges it with such high-powered emotional intensity that it is impossible to put down. Katherine is a feisty and seductive protagonist who relies on happenstance but also her wits and evasions. We accept the many chance encounters and lucky breaks and are on tenterhooks when scrapes turn into dilemmas. Along the way, Thomson blends in poignant flashbacks that show Katherine spending time with her dying mother, together with riveting hypothetical scenarios of her father piecing together clues to locate her.
This is a stunning, thought-provoking novel about a young woman out to prove that she is not "a freak, an experiment" but vibrant and alive. We should read it and then read everything else by this very fine writer.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.