A Review of Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

1.23.2022

“I no longer believed that equanimity was either tenable or desirable. It corroded everything inside. I had never met a person with greater equanimity than the former president. But this applied to all of them—to the prosecution and the defense, to the judges and even the other interpreters. They were able to work. They had the right temperament for the job. But at what internal cost?”


Words matter. They can start and end wars and hold the best and worst of our nature. Spoken and reserved, they reflect the intricacies of our engagements with each other. The unnamed narrator of Katie Kitamura’s 2021 novel, Intimacies, leads a life that exemplifies how language – and, more importantly, the power of the people behind them – can mold identities and change worlds. 

An interpreter for a court in the Hague, the young woman dedicates her days to translating the accounts of victims and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide for international court cases. Her fluency in English, French, and Japanese, among other languages, enables her both to convey the personal stories of crimes against humanity in live trials and to seek home in a new city. Kitamura provides little biographical information about the narrator, but we know that she appears rootless. Her mother resides in Singapore, but the narrator elects to move from New York to the Netherlands after the death of her father. Growing up, the interpreter moved often. Her new residence in the Hague seems just as “temporary,” and her relationship with Adriaan, a Dutch man who is not yet divorced from his first wife, is uncertain. 

Although the narrator is a newcomer, her command of language places her in unique situations of intimacy even in a place that she can’t yet call home. On a train, for instance, her developing abilities in Dutch permit her to understand a conversation between a group of twelve-year-old girls. They seem to be laughing, but the narrator overhears the words “rape” and “police”. When she looks over at the speaker, she notices that the girl’s eyes are sadder than her laughter betrays. 

Scenes like this one offer immersive explorations of the intimacy we can develop with people we do not know. Acquaintances and strangers to the narrator who reveal personal stories to her without knowing her closely pose paradoxes throughout Intimacies that highlight how even our most fortuitous encounters with others can connect us. A few less developed plot points, like the potential assault of a man and the narrator’s friendship with Jana, leave more examination to be desired. Still, all of these interactions pose compelling existential questions: What defines and drives intimacy? What constitutes a relationship? What is the extent of human empathy? How do our perceptions of others affect our intimacy with them? 

One of the most interesting relationships in the novel emerges between the interpreter and the former president of an African country on trial for ethnic cleansing. The president requests the narrator to be his translator for the trial, and he takes a liking to her. She is uncomfortable in the “strange intimacy” that develops between them; she knows the horror of this man’s actions but must serve as his mouthpiece. Kitamura’s deft writing allows us to occupy the complex emotions of the narrator as she navigates disgust, fear, confusion, and curiosity. While being a “pure instrument” for someone she distrusts, echoing his words, the narrator becomes “permeable,” inhabiting his perspective and responding to court proceedings from his point of view. It feels almost perverse at times and is so, so riveting. 

In a way, the interpreter acts as a “pure instrument” for the readers, too. The narrator’s relationship to us parallels those that she maintains in the novel: simultaneously distant and close. We do not even know the interpreter’s name, but serendipitous circumstances grant us insight into the power dynamics that she witnesses and experiences. Kitamura describes these moments in prose that is beautiful, engrossing, and occasionally haunting because of how real they feel.

- ★★★★-

24 comments :

  1. Wow! Sounds great. Language, intimacy, political support... all great topics. You make me want to rush out and get this novel. (Or, more accurately, open a new tab and click on Amazon's site.)

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  2. That seems pretty deep to me. Quite thought provoking too.

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  3. This sounds like an amazing book--very thought provoking.

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  4. Sounds like a deep and thought-provoking read, glad you enjoyed it!

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  5. Wow, this sounds fascinating! Great review, I feel like it's a book I could enjoy.

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  6. Being a translator myself, I'm always fascinating when plots involve translators. This one sounds so good. Thanks, I didn't know this author

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  7. What a very thoughtful review, thanks for sharing.

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  8. I like the sound of this story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  9. This sounds like a very interesting story. I love language and how it can bridge the gaps between two people. I love that this story illustrates that in what seems to be a very meaningful way. Thank you for your review and for stopping by my blog! :)

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  10. That seems a very unique and intense story!

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  11. It sounds like a very thought-provoking and powerful story, the author must have a really good imagination.

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  12. Wow! What a compelling and intriguing premise. I can't wait to read this one. :)

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  13. This sounds like one of those books that will really make you think.

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  14. Sounds like this explores a lot of questions. The part about being influenced by the president on trial for doing awful things as the overheard conversation on the train. And being unaware of the narrator's identity is interesting as well- anonymity but also the examination of what actually constitutes intimacy.

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  15. I've never heard of this before and it sounds so interesting! Languages have always been a subject that I wish I could spend more time studying so to read from the pov of a translator, especially with that work focus, is fascinating! I'll definitely have to add this to my tbr!

    riv @ dearrivarie

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  16. Ooh! This book really has me intrigued! It sounds very thought-provoking and interesting. I will have to put this one on my list. :)

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  17. This sounds like a fascinating book. I'm really interested in psychology and languages so I think this might be a good one to try.

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  18. Sounds like a story to really get you thinking. It's odd that the main character is never named. I guess sort of like the classic novel Rebecca.

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  19. I haven't heard of this book, but wow! It does sound like a brilliant read and I am going to take a look for sure.

    Have a good week ahead!

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  20. This sounds like a brilliant read indeed. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

    xx
    Vanessa @ Blushing Geek

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  21. Superb review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

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  22. Sounds like a heavy read, but glad to hear it's also a 'good' one (for whatever good does or does not mean, lol) <3

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  23. This book sounds like a lot, but definitely thought provoking even if it does seem like it would be a bit dark at times with the narrators job itself. It does seem like it looks at the power of language and words with their job translating.

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