GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a junior at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page.
Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies (Riverhead, 2021) follows a young woman working at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a translator, leaving New York after her father’s death. As she is given the responsibility of interpreting the trial of a powerfully charismatic West African dictator, brought to court for perpetrating an ethnic cleansing, she struggles to retain stability and normalcy in her personal life.
Kitamura writes like poetry, breaking rigid grammatical structures deliberately. Through comma splices, we are granted a glimpse into our narrator’s stream of consciousness (“I touched the morocco binding, they were beautiful things, and although it was more money than I had to spend, I told the woman I would buy one of the books, I thought I might give it to Adriaan”).
The most striking change is the lack of quotation marks; our narrator’s job is to convey other people’s words as authentically as possible. Though Intimacies contains plenty of dialogue, Kitamura relies entirely on line breaks and dialogue tags to identify when someone else speaks.
We never learn our protagonist’s name. Even though she is the main character, she is the only one whose name Kitamura never reveals — she remains a passive observer to her own life. However, Kitamura allows us into her inner consciousness, her anxieties and insecurities. In every scene, uncertainty and apprehension linger. Though our narrator often isn’t privy to the whole story, she can sense that there are gaps in her knowledge. As an interpreter, her job is to “throw down planks across these gaps,” bridge the divide between languages. However, she cannot translate what goes on in the minds of her friends. She can only fill that gap with her own guesses or her imagination. When she describes her initial move to the Netherlands, she explains that “A place has a curious quality when you have only a partial understanding of its language, and in those early months the sensation was especially peculiar.” This statement applies to the unique, personal language each of her friends speaks, and the narrator struggles to gain a fuller understanding, dissatisfied with an incomplete picture.
Intimacies emphasizes the power of charm and confidence. The two people the narrator becomes closest to — her friend Jana and her boyfriend Adriaan — are so confident that she is swept up by their charm. Similarly, the West African dictator our narrator must translate for exudes power and charm. He selects her as his favorite, showing her kindness and startling humanity. The narrator struggles to reconcile his magnetic personality with the devastating loss he caused. Though none of her friends cause atrocities of the same magnitude, she tolerates behavior that would send others running for the hills.
Our narrator is ghost-like. She cannot become flustered, show emotion, allow any part of her to escape during her translation. She must speak with someone else’s voice, simply a medium for the words of others to pass through. Perhaps this leads to compliance in her own life; she is so used to stifling her own voice that when she actually needs to speak up and allow her emotions to be heard, she is incapable of doing so. Her job requires her to inhabit the headspace of criminals and victims in order to truly represent their words, and as she reflects when talking to her boyfriend, she “could understand anything, under the right circumstances and for the right person.” Intimacies allows us to briefly understand her, offering a fascinating glimpse into life as a translator forced to confront the worst of humanity while trying to find a home.