When a book has been on former US President Barack Obama’s “Summer Reading List” for 2021, you know two things at the outset; firstly, that the book will be indisputably classy, and secondly cohesively intriguing. Such is the case for American novelist, journalist and art critic, Katie Kitamura’s, latest novel, “Intimacies”.
In the novel, our young, female protagonist (we never learn her name) has recently taken up a position as an interpreter at the Court in The Hague in the Netherlands. (Katie Kitamura notes in her acknowledgments that despite the fact the Court depicted in the novel is similar to the actual International Criminal Court, “it is in no way intended to represent that institution or it’s activities”).
Our protagonist (who I shall henceforth refer to as “the interpreter”), has moved from New York to resume her interpreting role. We learn that she is fluent in both English and Japanese through her parents, and in French from spending her childhood in Paris. It is English and French that are the languages of the court. We are told that the Court deals solely with matters of “genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes”. Thus the job entails requires great precision and considerable amounts of stress.
The interpeter’s best friend is Jana; a curator at the Mauritshuis (a national gallery). Additionally, the interpreter is in an intricately complex romantic relationship with Adriaan; a Dutch man whose wife, Gaby, has left him and taken their teenage children to live with her in Lisbon, Portugal. When Adriaan and the interpreter are at the tentative beginning of their relationship, they attend a party together, where the interpreter meets the trivial and sly top defense lawyer, Kees. He has been in a relationship with Gaby before her marriage to Adriaan, and now is a close friend of hers.
When Adriaan decides to travel to Lisbon to precipitate some sort of resolution of his relationship with Gaby, he leaves the interpreter staying in his spacious apartment, and leaves her a note saying “I will imagine you here while I’m away”.
Subsequently the interpreter finds herself assigned to a case that has been before the Court for several months. She learns that a former president of an African country – we never learn the exact country – is on trial in the case for perpetrating ethnic cleansing and forming death squads, which have contributed to mass graves. Kees is part of the counsel for the defense for this case, and the interpreter realises that every nuance of concentration and articulation she possesses she will need to draw upon to get through the trial.
Interwoven in the plot, is the brutal – seemingly random – assault of a flamboyantly successful book dealer – Anton de Rijk – outside Jana’s apartment. The interpreter is introduced to Anton’s sister, Eline, and subsequently Anton, but as is often the case in the Court, we find that the appearances of the attack on Anton are eerily deceptive.
When Adriaan stops answering the interpreter’s texts, and time marches on, the interpreter feels her ties to The Hague are tenuous at best. Will the interpreter continue in her vociferously demanding role at the Court, and is she foolish to contemplate any sort of a future with Adriaan enmeshed in it? As the interpreter finds herself being propelled further and further into the deep chasm of the former president’s trial, and being left bereft and empty by Adriaan’s confusingly excessive absence in Portugal, will the interpreter ever have the stable and dependable professional and personal life that she so desperately craves?
This novel is a subtly – yet at times brutally – informative and thought provoking read. It opens the readers’ eyes to a world that’s inner workings are often hidden from view; yet at times are blatantly vivid and apparent. I recommend it for your reading list this summer.