Review: Katie Kitamura’s international novel hits close to home

“INTIMACIES: A NOVEL” by Katie Kitamura (Riverhead Books, 240 pages, $16).

From the outside, the unnamed protagonist of Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel “Intimacy” is an elite woman who excels in her work as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

She is fluent in English and Japanese through her parents, learned French as a child in Paris, and is fluent in Spanish and German from her years spent in other European cities. As an interpreter, she makes full use of her multilingual skills. The job also requires precision, speed and, above all, the kind of poised, thick-skinned personality that allows him to listen and reiterate stilted legalese and horrifying testimony on a daily basis.

Kitamura’s narrator is what some of us would call a Third Culture Kid (TCK), someone who grew up in a different culture than their parents. My resume isn’t nearly as impressive as this character’s, but I identify as a TCK, having spent much of my life moving back and forth between Japan and various parts of the United States. The narrator says she moved around so much that “there was no place that I would consider my childhood home”. In The Hague, she notes, “A place has a curious quality when you only have a partial understanding of its language.” While interpreting, she muses that “[l]language loses its meaning.”

Kitamura’s writing is impeccable, which is both a compliment and an observation on the choice she made for the voice of this particular narrator, whose work is above all a question of accuracy of words.

To truly understand the artistry of this novel, however, it’s not enough to appreciate what’s on the page. Anything the narrator omits is equally important. The dark matter in this novel, if you will, sheds more light on what’s really going on inside this polished character’s head.

In the opening paragraphs, the narrator summarizes her situation concisely, perhaps incorrectly: she chose to accept a one-year contract to work in The Hague because she was eager to leave New York, a place which she associates with the recent death of her father. After his death, his mother soon moved to Singapore. These details are pointed out bluntly and unreiterated for a long time, which signaled to me that the undercurrent of this book is grief – not just for his father, but for the closeness to his mother and, most of the time , all in hopes of one day having a place she could call home.

This kind of grief for something that never existed in the first place is so hard to articulate, yet “Intimacies” comes close to it, or at least in the head of someone struggling to accept it. After a particularly harrowing day at the ICC, the narrator notes: “It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed, the horrifying image or the voice that speaks the unspeakable, to exist in the world we must and we forget, we live in a state of I know but I don’t know.” It could just as well be a statement about witnessing his father’s death in New York, although I’m sure the narrator would be quick to deny it.

Riverhead Books / “Intimacy”

It’s no wonder that, in her circumstances, the narrator can constantly guess the words and body language of Jana, a friend of a friend who also feels like an outsider in The Hague as a black woman from London. When the narrator embarks on a romantic relationship with a Dutchman named Adriaan, she realizes that he too is impossible to interpret. She wants to understand, and she says she understands — but that doesn’t mean she understands.

I read the book when it came out in the summer of 2021, and my initial enjoyment was the feeling of escape. I had never been to the Netherlands, and since international travel was still risky for our family, the book was an opportunity for my mind, at least, to break out of our isolation in Nashville.

Reading it again now, about a year later, “Intimacies” left me with a different interpretation. As the world seems to be rushing to crowded events to make up for all that lost time, I can’t help but feel that we’re meant to interact with each other with unspoken agreement to pretend that the past two and a half years does not occur. As if many of us haven’t experienced heartbreaking grief for someone, or maybe something that can’t be named.

We seem to have passed the stage of genuine worry when we ask ourselves, “How are you? We return to treating this sentence as a mere formality. Intimacy – to use Kitamura’s title, a word that is reiterated and analyzed throughout the book – eludes me in this current world. There must be others who also feel perplexed about how to navigate this new but somehow old world, who feel alone not knowing how to process everything. Kitamura’s novel may not provide answers, but it will offer kinship and recognition. In this way, “Intimacy” might be more timely than ever.


Katie Kitamura will read excerpts from her work at Southern University in Sewanee, Tennessee at 4:30 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, August 30. The free event at Gailor Auditorium is open to the public and will be streamed live on YouTube.

For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.organ online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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