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Like its critically acclaimed predecessor, A SEPARATION, Katie Kitamura’s new novel introduces a protagonist whose job it is to translate words from one language to another. In the case of INTIMACIES, however, the unnamed narrator works at a job where the stakes are much higher than literary translation --- the International Court at The Hague, where she acts as an interpreter in major criminal cases involving issues like genocide and terrorism. Combining a glimpse of the tensions inherent in this unusual occupation with an edgy love story, Kitamura once again has found the formula for a moody, tension-filled work that’s noteworthy for its ability to maintain a consistently elevated level of suspense from beginning to end.

The intensely self-aware and articulate narrator of INTIMACIES is a young woman who has moved to the Netherlands from New York in 2016 with a “renewed sense of possibility” after the death of her father following a long illness. She signs a one-year contract to work at The Hague, so there’s something of a provisional quality to her presence there, but that doesn’t prevent her from forming a close friendship with Jana, a curator at the Mauritshuis, an esteemed Dutch art museum. More significantly, she embarks on a romantic relationship with Adriaan, who she discovers is married and the father of two children whose mother has taken them to live in Portugal.

"There’s nothing explosive or startling in this brief novel, but the pleasures of inhabiting the mind of a complex and intriguing protagonist are considerable and undeniable."

Much of the novel’s tension revolves around whether Adriaan truly is resigned to the demise of his marriage or is instead committed to salvaging it. The narrator spends an agonizing interval in Adriaan’s apartment in what she thinks of as a “precarious position” after he departs for Lisbon, assuring her that he intends to ask his wife for a divorce. Her doubts about his intentions only grow as a projected one-week trip stretches on indefinitely. Convinced that she “had been complicit in my own erasure,” she frets that she had “made myself too easy to leave, stashed away like a spare part, I had asked for too little, and now it was too late.”

But it’s not only her personal life that’s tangled. Her professional responsibilities take on new difficulty and complexity when she’s asked to substitute for one of her colleagues as an interpreter in the long-running trial of the ex-president of an unnamed African nation who is accused of crimes against humanity for, among other things, mass murders allegedly committed at his direction as he attempted to cling to power following a disputed election.

Hers is an unusual job, one in which she regards herself at times as “only an instrument.” She admits that her role “can be profoundly disorienting, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken first by the subject and then by yourself, that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses its meaning.”

The narrator’s responsibilities in the case aren’t confined to the courtroom, as she’s called upon frequently to interpret at conferences for the defense team, led by a lawyer named Kees, who appears to take a more than professional interest in her. What becomes even more unsettling is the increasing attention the defendant begins paying her as her role in the case grows. When she must interpret the testimony of a family member of some of his victims, she’s brought face-to-face with the moral gravity of the proceeding in which she plays an anonymous, if vital, part.

Kitamura carefully evokes a sense of place in describing The Hague, a locale her protagonist describes as “almost strenuously civilized,” while simultaneously sensing that “the docile surface of the city concealed a more complex and contradictory nature.” An air of menace lingers over the story with the occurrence of a mugging outside the apartment building where Jana lives. That unease deepens when the narrator is introduced to the victim, the brother of a woman she meets at the opening of an exhibition that Jana curates.

Whether it’s in the quotidian details of life or her description of a fraught romantic relationship, what makes Kitamura’s work so satisfying is her ability to sustain what the novelist and teacher John Gardner described as the “vivid and continuous dream” that’s at the heart of the best fiction. She’s a seductive writer, enticing the reader effortlessly from one sentence to the next, impelled by an urgent desire to find out what will happen to her characters and to follow her more deeply into the darkest corners of their emotional lives. There’s nothing explosive or startling in this brief novel, but the pleasures of inhabiting the mind of a complex and intriguing protagonist are considerable and undeniable.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 29, 2021

by Katie Kitamura

  • Publication Date: July 19, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399576177
  • ISBN-13: 9780399576171