book review: Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
Overview: While the main character steps into a difficult role as a court interpreter in The Hague, she adapts to a new country, a strained romantic relationship, tentative friendships, and a lack of belonging. In The Netherlands, she is rootless and unsure of her direction as she bounces between various worlds, none of which fit entirely right. She goes weeks between speaking to the best friend she has in the country. Her boyfriend happens to be in a strained marriage and have teenage children. Her job forces her to granularly translate and speak to atrocities on a global scale. Though none of these things feel right, she doesn't have a clear path towards what would be better. Instead, she clings to the granular details of the interactions of the people around her, the same way that she takes her job one precise word at a time. Overall: 4.5
Characters: 4 You come to inhabit the main character so deeply in the novel that it struck me as strange that it took reading the blurb after finishing the book to realize she's unnamed. You're instead translated directly into her head to experience the here and now. There's not much shared about her background. There's no memories or flashbacks. But the way that every scene comes with such sharp and detailed observations about everything and everyone around her, you build a truly intimate portrait of this character exactly as she is in that moment. While this sparseness and outward gaze can sometimes leave a bit to be desired, there's so much forward momentum that you don't quite notice all the missing information in the moment.
Her boyfriend Adriaan is one of the more central secondary characters. She sees him as her roots in this new country, and the status of their relationship plays a big role in whether she's interested in staying past her year long temporary contract. While we only know broad strokes about him, too, he exists more as a vessel for her to pour her thoughts, musings, and insecurities into. For the majority of the book, his biggest impact is being away and out of communication.
Her friend Jana also comes in and out in whispers. She's an art curator and really the only other person that the main character feels like she has. But Jana is inconsistent and confusing and possibly untrustworthy. She introduces her to Eileen who has a brother that's oddly entangled with a strange incident that Jana and the main character half witness. He presents an interesting mystery of tiny choices and human questions that threads through the novel.
The characters aren't fully fleshed out, vibrantly living and breathing people. They are tiny nuances and touches of the wrist and meaningful nods. They are the impact of their energy on a room and the tiny shifts that they set off around them. It's an interesting artistic choice that is quite effective to the mission of the book in the moment but very hard to put words to in a review.
Plot: 4 This is a literary fiction book to the core with a true focus on the quiet whispers that impact all of our lives and the granular parts of character. Still, there's an immense amount of motion to the book that gives it an entirely different energy than most literary fiction. It's not slow and cerebral and plodding, even though it has its extraordinarily detailed moments. This is because this core point is set in the middle of a number of high stakes questions that are tangential to the larger point. Her work in the court is contentious and troubling, her romantic relationship is a big question mark, and the mugging that happens at the start of the book starts off a curious puzzle that carries through the story. Every chapter carries so much tension that you immediately have to jump in to the next one until the book is finished. It's a different style of literary fiction that's quite effective.
Writing: 5 I loved the voice here, and it's what makes the book so fascinating and special. Do be warned, it's one of those books that has no regard for quotation marks. I still don't understand why some authors choose to eschew this basic grammar convention, but my Sally Rooney rabbit hole of the fall made it so that I didn't miss a beat when I realized there would be no speech markers here.
I downloaded this book from the library the second I saw Mary H.K. Choi highlighting it on her Instagram story during indie bookstore day. Anything Choi wants to recommend, I will read because I love her books so much. I didn't even read the summary. Luckily, it was a huge treat. I knew nothing about The Hague or even that it existed, and it was a fascinating setting and interesting international world that's drawn together from the main character's co-workers and the people around her. It makes me want to do further research now that I've finished the book.
There's so many brilliant, fascinating choices made in this book, and it's such a satisfying read. There's a sense of mastery in how each element of storytelling is wielded, and it's truly such a great experience.
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