Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel, Intimacies, is deeply concerned with place. At lunch with her boss, our unnamed protagonist is asked, “Where is your family,” meaning, where do you belong? It’s a question that comes up more than once, and one the protagonist can’t answer. She’s stuck between cultures, between languages, between moral positions; even her relationship is on undefined ground. An interpreter, the protagonist comes to The Hague to work at the International Court after her father’s passing in New York, while the rest of her family sets off for a new life in Singapore. It’s among this rainy, uneven footing the novel is set. And while Kitamura’s use of tone, temporality, and narrative can be striking, the novel itself is uneven, as often landing flat-footed as finding an interesting place to stand.
The narrator describes her move to The Hague and the acceptance of her new position at the International Court of Justice as having been undertaken through a whim, but perhaps this central search for home is more apt. Instead, the protagonist finds herself soon thereafter entrenched in more in-betweens. Her apartment came fully furnished, as if intended to be temporary. Her contract at the court is only for one year, a point that becomes more important in the later half of the novel. Even her partner, Adriaan, exists in this uncertain state; she later finds out he’s not-quite-divorced, a point the novel centers around in the second half.
Her coworkers at the Court, as noted by her boss Bettina in the aforementioned lunch, exist in a similar sphere as her: people situated between languages and cultures, emigrants trying to build a new home. Kitamura’s descriptions of interpretation are among the most compelling points of the novel, as the protagonist details how language seems to flow through her, words whispered into her ear and then repeated into a microphone, losing all meaning as they pass from between her lips. The protagonist soon finds herself involved in several high-profile cases at the Court, and so this characterization only carries more weight once it’s made clear the words in question often depict war crimes and genocide.
Intimacies is a very literary novel, which Kitamura seems to lean into, though this comes across too heavy-handed at times, bordering on affected. The protagonist is not a writer, though of course words are her trade. The novel feels very Cuskian, both technically speaking like in how the dialogue is presented (in line, undelineated) as well as stylistically, as everything in the novel is filtered through the protagonist. She takes guesses at what is left unsaid, fills in gaps left by characters’ gestures, and makes her mark on each of the novel’s pages. Kitamura seems to set up an interesting examination on the distance between the protagonist’s perception of characters and their actuality or intent, but only in a few instances is this the case. Her judgements on the characters are correct for the most part, and more often than not presented at face value.
Much of the novel follows course. Kitamura establishes many interesting ideas, but all too often fails to best leverage them. The protagonist is tasked at the Court with interpreting for one of the highest profile cases, against a deposed African President accused of ethnic cleansing. Through the course of the trial, she enters into an uneasy understanding with the President, becoming something of a confidant or at least a source of comfort for him; he nods to her each day as the session begins. When the case falls apart and the President is likely to be set free, the two have a falling out, as the President accuses her of being turned against him by the trial, and raises the hypocrisy of the Court, the history of colonialism in Africa, and the racial disparity between them. This startles the protagonist, but the moment and charge doesn’t stick with her. She tells an aide in the hall that his misgivings are probably true, and seems to file the whole event under the unpleasantness of the Court at large.
Kitamura spins a web of the interrelated cast, but none are too central. Early in the novel, the protagonist visits her friend Jana for dinner, who’s moved to a new area in The Hague. Despite Jana’s proclamations about the quality of the neighborhood, she too becomes rattled after an assault takes place outside her building. The protagonist becomes oddly obsessed with this case, and particularly with the man assaulted. She eventually winds up at a dinner with the man recovering from the attack and his sister, who’s become friends with the protagonist in the meantime. The pair have their suspicions about the nature of the attack, which the protagonist seems to later confirm were different than they had seemed, but the outcome and effect on the story is hardly resonant. In fact, the business anecdote the man tells at dinner is far more satisfying.
Perhaps nothing in the novel showcases this glancing sort of narrative more than the protagonist’s relationship with her partner, Adriaan. She describes an early date, where she’s enthralled to him in contrast to another man who approaches her at a party. There’s an awkward standoff outside the event, where it feels like a punch is waiting to be thrown, but the moment is more impotent that it first appeared. Still, the protagonist learns here Adriaan has separated from his wife, which doesn’t bother her.
Later, Adriaan heads to Lisbon to meet with his separated wife. The nature of this interaction and the footing on which the protagonist stands on back in The Hague only gets murkier as “a week, maybe two” turns into a month-plus with little to no communication from Adriaan. The protagonist recognizes her feebleness, her dependency on Adriaan’s acceptance, and likens the long weeks she spends silently living out of his apartment for his return like a lover who spends all day in bed in lingerie. She grows fed up, and seems to recognize her own agency. Which only makes it all the more disappointing that on his inevitable return, forgiveness comes quick, as she’s eager to fit into some sense of home.
Of course, the protagonist’s failings are interesting in their own right, but the novel all too often fails to capitalize on these moral moments, instead opting to simply note these moments, rather than placing the blow directly. There’s a lot to like here, from satisfying digressions, interesting questions, and Kitamura’s skillful use of time in the novel, but Intimacies is more slight than lasting.
By Katie Kitamura
Published July 20, 2021
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.