Intimacies: An intense and, yes, intimate book

An unnamed woman arrives in The Hague to work as an interpreter for an unnamed court (that is very obviously the International Criminal Court) and gets caught up in a shocking act of violence, becomes involved with a married man and is pulled into a complicated trial in an unnamed country. Short but forceful, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura shows a life of being lived rather than living — but does miss a few details.

The main character arrives in the Netherlands from New York City after the death of her father. She’s taken a temporary contract at the “Court,” interpreting between French and English during the proceedings, and later for a defendant with his lawyers.

She meets the still-married Adriaan at a party and a curator at the Maurithuas, Jana, whom she befriends. Jana becomes preoccupied with a violent mugging on her street while Adriaan asks her to move in while he travels to Lisbon to spend time with his wife and children.

The plot happens to the main character, who meaningfully, is not even given a name. “At certain points, you no longer understand the words you are saying. I get lost — I’m so focused on the minutiae of the session that I lose track of the larger story,” the main character says, explaining her job to a friend over coffee. She’s more of a witness to her life than a participant in it.

Kitamura’s writing is delicate and minimalist but the work is complex and nuanced. She balances the various plot lines while keeping the primary focus on the characters.

The book misses a few bits with the Netherlands and The Hague specifically, though only a reader deeply familiar with both would notice. The main character takes a tram to work, but there is no tram line that runs in front of the International Criminal Court. Everyone, including the Dutch characters, repeatedly take cabs through the city centre of The Hague.

The character refers to herself as a “translator” throughout the work — even though she is an interpreter. Translation involves turning a written text from one language to another, interpretation refers to listening to speech in one language and orally repeating it in another language.

These details, however, don’t detract from the overall impact of the work. Intimacies is a brilliant examination of one woman’s process of finding herself in a complicated world.

Published in 2021, former US president Barack Obama put Intimacies on his summer reading list, it was longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction and the New York Times Book Review included it in its Ten Best Books of the Year list.

You can order your copy of Intimacies via the American Book Center.

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