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What Is an Intimacy Coordinator, and How Are They Making Sex Scenes Look More Realistic?
Like Winona Ryder , I too performed the 2020 spring-lockdown rite of passage of watching Hulu’s Normal People . I was awed by the rawness and realism in the miniseries’ sex scenes .
With Normal People came an awareness of other recent titles giving a verisimilar approach to their intimate content. I’m talking about Sex Education , Bridgerton and Gentleman Jack . This new treatment of sexual content reminded me of the infamous wedding episode in season one of Outlander and how it had been praised for its manifestation of the female gaze .
Shows like Normal People and I May Destroy You aren’t shying away from period sex, loss of virginity with some discomfort and consent as a continuous concept. But navigating these sensitive scenes with the level of nuance they need can require some special consideration. At the forefront of these scenes are their creators, writers and directors, of course. But there are also professionals called intimacy coordinators making sure there are proper procedures established on sets so that simulated sex can be captured and shown on the screen in the safest way.
Intimacy Coordinators as Intimate Content Choreographers
Ita O’Brien — intimacy coordinator for Normal People , Sex Education and I May Destroy You and a pioneer in the industry — likens her profession to that of a dance choreographer or a stunt coordinator. “An intimacy coordinator is a practitioner who brings a professional process and professional practices to the intimate content,” she says during a video chat interview. “[We’re] dealing with the intimate content in a professional way, with open communication, agreement and consent inherent within the process — and that’s of touch, of simulation of sexual content and of nudity. Whereas in the past, it was just like: ‘You’re an actor, get on with it.’
“We’re bringing techniques of where to hold. What body part to push into body part. What rhythm do we want to start with. What’s the journey through. What’s the culmination,” she adds about her work in choreographing intimate content. O’Brien says this kind of professional structure gives the performers the tools to do their work. The kisses can come freely and the actors can develop all their skills. They know they’re taken care of and there won’t be surprises or unwanted touching. Everything has been previously decided, rehearsed and agreed upon.
O’Brien also points out that intimacy coordinators help the actors in their process to discover how their characters would have sex. “This isn’t the person’s personal and private intimate expression. This is these characters. What’s the kind of movement that we need for these characters? You need practitioners who are going to bring that.”
When Are Intimacy Coordinators Necessary?
While not all film, TV or theater productions should have a use for an intimacy coordinator, O’Brien talks about the need to engage a professional if there’s any kind of intimate content. Even if it’s just a kiss.
“It’s never just a kiss,” says O’Brien. “Kissing is way more intimate and can be more challenging than a full-on simulated sexual scene. In a simulated sex scene, you have modesty garments covering the genitalia. It’s absolutely pretend. Whereas, actually, if you have to kiss lip to lip you are kissing lip to lip.”
Founder of Intimacy on Set , an organization that trains and works with professional intimacy coordinators, O’Brien has developed the Intimacy on Set Guidelines , a set of best practices when working with intimacy, simulated sex scenes and nudity. “When kissing, no use of tongues as standard practice,” read the guidelines. “However, should the director feel it would serve the scene better to use tongues, then there must be agreement and consent from both of the actors.”
This kind of structure and these types of safety guidelines provided by intimacy coordinators are not only being adopted in TV, although O’Brien admits long-form shows have more space and time to get in-depth with these explorations. Taking a look at O’Brien’s credits and those of some of her peers — like Bridgerton ‘s intimacy coordinator, Lizzy Talbot , and The Undoing ‘s Alicia Rodis — shows how TV is leading the way.
A Maturing Profession
While the industry moves toward embracing and adopting these professionals, O’Brien says she’s working with other pioneers in this line of work to have an outside accreditation so it’s clear who’s an accredited, experienced intimacy coordinator and who is not.
“I’m training practitioners across the globe. It’s really important that [in] the industry they make sure that the intimacy coordinators that they employ are trained, or under mentorship. There are many people now who are jumping on the bandwagon, looking at what we do, and thinking: ‘I can do that.’ Because it seems like there’s very little, but, actually, the job is incredibly complex,” she says.
Part of that complexity comes from the many people an intimacy coordinator has to serve in any given production. O’Brien insists their work is not only to serve the actors, but also the producers — who are the ones paying in the first place — and the directors. She explains how in Normal People she worked closely with director Lenny Abrahamson to ensure she was serving his vision and she didn’t miss one single bit from what was written on the page. Intimacy coordinators need to make sure sex is portrayed safely, without getting in the way.
In some of the TV shows and films I’ve watched recently, I almost could guess whether they’d worked with an intimacy coordinator or they’d just “winged” it.
“Through the work of the intimacy coordinator, we can bring more authentic and more detailed intimate scenes that help us have more realistic intimate content,” O’Brien says, and she recalls the Normal People episode in which Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) loses her virginity. The sequence included a conversation about protection, consent and even showed the discomfort she first felt during intercourse.
At the end of the day, intimacy coordinators are also serving the viewer.
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Intimacies by Katie Kitamura review – difficulties of interpretation
Tipped by Barack Obama, this is an addictively mysterious novel about a woman adrift in her own life
“T he appearance of simplicity is not the same thing as simplicity itself,” thinks the narrator of Intimacies after discovering her Dutch boyfriend, Adriaan, is married. Similarly, while Katie Kitamura’s writing is of the Orwell-approved “clear pane of glass” school, the cumulative effect of her deft, spare sentences is paradoxically confounding; what appears to be a straight path somehow becomes a labyrinth.
Adriaan admits to having a wife. “But I don’t know for how much longer,” he tells the unnamed narrator. “Is that OK?” In fact, very little in this addictively mysterious novel is OK, from the “complex and contradictory” nature of The Hague, where the narrator has moved from New York, to her work as an interpreter at Kitamura’s version of the international criminal court. Here, despite her skill and discipline, she finds “great chasms between words, between two or more languages, that could open up without warning”.
Cracks in her professional and private life widen as the book progresses. A mugging takes place outside her friend’s apartment, and she becomes obsessed with the victim. Adriaan travels to Lisbon to divorce his estranged wife, but days become weeks and he stops texting. All the while she is living in his apartment, but realises she’s left no impression of herself in its rooms, as if to show Adriaan “how easily I would slip into the fabric of his life, how little disturbance I would cause”. In a moment of apprehension that further heightens the novel’s almost uncanny atmosphere of threat, she judges herself “complicit in my own erasure”.
This echoes Kitamura’s previous novel, A Separation . Its narrator, also unnamed, works as a literary translator, a job she values because of its “potential for passivity” (before that, in Gone to the Forest and The Longshot , Kitamura explored a disintegrating colonial state and mixed martial arts contests). But what lies at the root of her latest narrator’s paralysis? True to her repressive tendencies, she never simply announces her reasons – she is as much outside herself as we are. She seems to have had a diplomatic brat’s childhood, her family living in various European cities before settling in New York. She is grieving – her father died recently, after which her mother made a “sudden retreat” to Singapore – and she feels profoundly dislocated. “I want to be in a place that feels like home,” she thinks after a Chinese woman addresses her in Mandarin, a language she cannot speak. But “where that was, I did not know”. This biographical information arrives in scraps and asides because, somewhat like Faye, the effaced central character of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the attentions of Kitamura’s narrator are mostly directed outward. Several of the stories other characters tell her are extremely reminiscent of Cusk in their psychological acuity and moral dimension – as well as their fluency and uninterruptedness. The notable dissenter is a rare book dealer called Anton, whose acid rant about a rich couple’s vulgar house is pure Thomas Bernhard.
Anton is involved in two of the moments of intimacy that punctuate the novel, nearly all of which are ethically dubious or otherwise uncomfortable: the apparent collusion of two of the narrator’s friends, who supposedly don’t know one another; an ambiguous proposition at the end of a friendly dinner; words murmured in bed; sex in a restaurant toilet. But the most complex intimacies take place between the court’s interpreters and the defendants. In one of the novel’s stand-out scenes the narrator interprets at a private meeting between the court’s most high-profile defendant, the former president of an unnamed African state, and the legal team he disdains: “These men who hectored him about the specificities of his actions, he wished to be free of them, in the same way that he wished to be free of his guilt.”
The former president thinks differently of the narrator. “The first time I saw you,” he says, “I thought: I like this woman, because she is not truly from the West.” But where is she from, and where should she be? She exemplifies the way in which we can function apparently normally – feed ourselves, perform our jobs, even maintain friendships – but at the same time be utterly adrift in our lives.
When she interprets for the former president, a similar relationship between presence and absence is described: “You can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken first by the subject and then by yourself that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying.” Her ability to interpret the events of her own life is fouled in a similar contradiction because of her inability to “draw a line from one thing to the next”. Kitamura explores the political ramifications of this as well as the personal, describing how “none of us are able to really see the world we are living in” – that is, one in which the western world makes the rules, whether economic or judicial, and decides who must pay for breaking them and who gets a pass.
This element of Kitamura’s novel – perhaps what inspired Barack Obama to put it on his summer reading list – gives it a sweep at odds with its claustrophobic focus, and its specificity comes to feel universal, too. If it works for you as it did for me, the narrator’s atomised experiences, her inability to forge a coherent narrative from her life, will feel compellingly strange as the pages rapidly turn – but also uncomfortably familiar, the book’s final intimacy being the one between narrator and reader.
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Fascinating, mysterious 'intimacies' doesn't let readers get close enough.
The unnamed heroine of Intimacies , Katie Kitamura's fascinating and mysterious new novel, observes that "none of us are able to see the world we are living in — the world, occupying as it does the contradiction between its banality ... and its extremity." She's a new interpreter at The Hague, responsible for the banal function of translating legal proceedings for extremely evil defendants: genocidal former heads of state.
We know only that the narrator came to The Hague by way of New York, her father has just died after a long illness, and her mother has returned to Singapore. Even her age and ethnicity are murky and, strangely, rarely commented upon. Kitamura seems to intentionally test the boundaries of how little biographical information an author can reveal about a protagonist while still making the reader feel intimately connected to them.
Readers will get a sense of both the importance and the futility of the International Criminal Court. The narrator points out that the Court primarily prosecutes crimes against humanity in African nations, becoming an "ineffectual" instrument of "Western imperialism." Of the building that the Court is housed in, the narrator observes "the modern architecture still seemed incongruous, perhaps even lacking the authority I had expected."
Kitamura is out with another novel that transcends languages and borders.
Fires Burn — At A Distance — In Unnerving 'Separation'
When the narrator must interpret for an African head of state accused of enforcing Sharia law and numerous crimes related to the persecution of women, Kitamura portrays the accused's intake process as an hours-long exercise in bureaucratic drudgery. The narrator dryly observes, "I even forgot who I was waiting for, only that I was waiting for someone who might never arrive, and that I might never leave this vestibule." The accused and the narrator develop a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling dynamic, with the narrator simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the accused's remorselessness.
Outside of work, the narrator wants what anyone moving alone to a new city wants: friendship and love. She gets involved with Adriaan, a married father finalizing a divorce. Not long after they meet, however, he leaves for Portugal. The narrator can't tell whether he's gone to rekindle his marriage or work out the terms of the separation. While she stays in Adriaan's apartment alone for weeks on end, their relationship reduced to a series of infrequent and terse texts, her insecurities grow.
While Adriaan is gone, the narrator develops a fascination with an elegant art historian named Eline and her charismatic, disabled brother Anton. The narrator's description of her profession mirrors her interactions with these new friends: "We interpreters were only extras passing behind the central cast and yet moved with caution, we had a sense of being under observation." Kitamura casts the narrator as an extra in the lives of Adriaan, Eline, Anton, and others. They are named; she is not. And yet, the narrator is the character we're supposed to feel most intimate with. We observe her actively hiding herself, as she reveals every thought and feeling with an abundance of discretion. She's so circumspect that I started to wonder: What exactly did Adriaan and others find alluring about her?
Inside the crucible of a war crimes trial and a relationship that seems doomed, the mysterious narrator gradually breaks down. When her boss at The Hague offers to renew her contract, she demurs and begins to cry there on the spot. Her loss of restraint feels like a major moment in the book, but why? Is she finally coming to terms with her father's passing, her mother's abandonment, Adriaan's desertion, her inability to develop lasting friendships in a new city, or all or some of the above?
I couldn't help but crave a more open, incautious narrator, someone who is more than, as the accused puts it, "part of the institution that [she] serve[s]." The novel effectively comments on the elusiveness of intimacy, but perhaps at the cost of the reader's emotional connection to the narrator. How much of what is factually revealed helps one understand a situation — or a person — more intimately? Even the journalists covering the International Criminal Court "had merely fragments of the narrative and yet they would assemble those fragments into a story like any other story, a story with the appearance of unity." Kitamura's novel has its own appearance of unity, but ultimately illustrates how one's interpretations can fail to help them see the world in which they live.
Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon , among other outlets.
225 pages, Hardcover
First published July 20, 2021
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‘ the ambiguity of the image itself...not a painting of temptation, but rather one of harassment and intimidation….The painting operated around a schism….the man, who believed the scene to be one of ardor and seduction, and the woman, who have been plunged into a state of fear and humiliation. ’
there were great chasms beneath words, between two or sometimes more languages, that could open up without warning. As interpreters it was our job to throw down planks across these gaps. This was not aided by the fact that interpretation can be profoundly disorienting, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken first by the subject and then by yourself, that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses its meaning. As I looked down at the witness, it prickled through me, the strangeness of speaking her words for her, the wrongness of using this I that was hers and not mine, this word that was not sufficiently capacious.
I turned back to the canvas, and it occurred to me then that only a woman could have made this image. This was not a painting of temptation, but rather one of harassment and intimidation, a scene that could be taking place right now in nearly anyplace in the world. The painting operated around a schism, it represented two irreconcilable subjective positions: the man, who believed the scene to be one of ardor and seduction, and the woman, who had been plunged into a state of fear and humiliation. That schism, I now realized, was the true inconsistency animating the canvas, and the true object of Leyster’s gaze.
The idea was almost impossibly personal, and I realized the notion of such a sustained human gaze was outside the realm of experience today. For that reason, the paintings opened up a dimension that you did not normally see in photographs, in these paintings you could feel the weight of time passing. I thought that was why, as I stood before a painting of a young girl in half-light, there was something that was both guarded and vulnerable in her gaze. It was not the contradiction of a single instant, but rather it was as if the painter had caught her in two separate states of emotion, two different moods, and managed to contain them within the single image. There would have been a multitude of such instants captured in the canvas, between the time she first sat down before the painter and the time she rose, neck and upper body stiff, from the final sitting. That layering—in effect a kind of temporal blurring, or simultaneity—was perhaps ultimately what distinguished painting from photography. I wondered if that was the reason why contemporary painting seemed to me so much flatter, to lack the mysterious depth of these works, because so many painters now worked from photographs.
a narrative becomes persuasive not through complexity but conviction
I had lived with my slow-moving grief for so long that I had ceased to notice it
The three men were almost certainly immigrants, possibly Turkish and Surinamese. Meanwhile, their labor was necessitated by the heritage aesthetic of the city, not to mention the carelessness of a wealthy population that dropped its cigarette butts onto the pavement without a thought, when the designated receptacle was only a few feet away, I now saw that there were dozens of cigarette butts on the ground directly below the ashtrays. It was only an anecdote. But it was one example of how the city’s veneer of civility was constantly giving way, in places it was barely there at all.
Even from the inside...what do you really know of your own marriage? One day you realize you are living with a stranger.
the prospect offered by a new relationship, the opportunity to be someone other than yourself.
My job is to make the space between languages as small as possible. I would not obfuscate the meaning of what he had done, of these words that he deemed so insufficient, my job was the ensure that there would be no escape route between languages.
I thought of Adriaan, it occurred to me that this was the world he had inhabited with Gaby. They would have circulated through this room with ease, I was sure that between them they would have known most of the people in attendance, in some ways it was their world even more than it was Jana’s. I felt a rush of fear crowd into me. I was not of this place. I realized I had been trying to occupy the apartment in as discreet a manner as possible, as if to illustrate to Adriaan upon his return how easily I would slip into the fabric of his life, how little disturbance I would cause. To understand this was humiliating. I was a woman waiting for a lover, dressed in obscene lingerie, body arrayed on the bed in a pose of hopeful seduction. I had been complicit in my own erasure. Where is home? My family’s now in Singapore. Before that I lived in New York. I thought—I want to go home. I want to be in a place that feels like home. Where that was, I did not know.
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Katie Kitamura Writes a World Ruled by Charisma
By Katy Waldman
There is something decidedly unintimate about calling a novel “Intimacies.” The refusal to specify (what, whose) feels like a hedge. And yet “ Intimacies ,” by the author Katie Kitamura, achieves a kind of truth in advertising. Kitamura pursues various definitions of the word: knowledge of, closeness with, closeness to. At times, intimacy suggests friendship—a nearness of hearts—and other times merely precision, a nearness in sense, or proximity, a nearness in space. These forms of closeness want to bleed together, and characters sweat to keep them straight, to be close to one another in the “right” ways. The result is a rich, novelistic portrait of an abstraction.
The book, Kitamura’s fourth, follows an unnamed woman who has left New York—having lost her father, to a long illness—and come to The Hague, for work. She speaks in an unadorned first person, and reveals an acute but incomplete grasp of her surroundings. “I was surprised by how easily and frequently I lost my bearings,” she says, sounding like Sebald, another perceptive emigrant. (Her intelligence and sense of dissociation have the same uncanny quality of reinforcing each other.) The woman’s affect is also the novel’s: haunted, unstable, and intermittently hopeful. (“I had begun looking for something, although I didn’t know exactly what.”) Partway through the book, the narrator’s new boyfriend, Adriaan, decamps to Lisbon to finalize his divorce; she moves into his enviable apartment, and weeks pass with no word from him. Meanwhile, she begins to spend time with an art historian whose twin brother was mugged and brutally beaten. The assault occurred recently, in another friend’s neighborhood, and all three—the siblings and the friend—seem thrown, viscerally transformed. The narrator studies them with empathy and a quiet interest, as if their behavior contained an answer to the puzzle of violence, how it changes the course of things, how its consequences linger.
The narrator, it emerges, has a professional as well as a personal stake in these questions. She works as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court, where her “daily activity,” she says, hinges on the “description, elaboration, delineation” of horrors. Shortly after Adriaan leaves, she is assigned to the trial of a former President, also unnamed, who stands accused of war crimes. (He is partially modelled on Charles Taylor , the former President of Liberia; that the I.C.C. seems to prosecute with particular zeal evildoers from nonwhite countries is not lost on Kitamura.) The narrator, although supremely competent, does not always relish her job. It makes her feel permeable, open like a ramshackle house to the drafts of others’ moods and desires, and aspiring to perfect technical fidelity robs her of understanding.“You can be so caught up in the minutiae” of interpretation, she explains, “that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying.”
In Kitamura’s books, career is frequently a metonym for character. “ A Separation ,” her previous novel, featured a narrator who was also a translator (albeit of literature) and who exhibits a translator’s apparent passivity. At one point, she reproduces a soliloquy from her husband on professional mourners , who are paid to weep and wail at funerals in Greece. “You, the bereaved, are completely liberated from the need to emote,” the husband had said. “You purchase an instrument to express your sorrow, or perhaps it’s less like an instrument and more like a tape recorder and tape, you simply press play.” The narrator in “A Separation” seems enthralled by this system of surrogate feeling, and, in “Intimacies,” we find her counterpart trapped in its gears. At work, something nauseating has happened: the former President has taken a shine to her. She suspects his favor might relate to her soothing blankness, the way her subjectivity yields to others’. “I was pure instrument,” she thinks, “someone without will or judgment, a consciousness-free zone into which he could escape, the only company he could now bear.”
If passivity was an occupational hazard for the protagonist of “A Separation,” complicity is a problem for her successor. Her profession is to be a professional—to encase the monstrous in bureaucracy and expertise—and although this has not dulled her emotions it does dictate where and how she feels them. (She remembers being “startled” by the “unmeasured” tones of lawyers arguing about hideous crimes.) Kitamura devotes much more time in her new book to the narrator’s vocation, which is portrayed as subtle and dynamic, demanding exactitude, improvisation, and a flair for pressing artifice into the service of truth. There are many novels about women looking for agency, but agency, “Intimacies” wants to insist, is unavoidable. As the judicial setting highlights, accountability—others’ and one’s own—proves the more elusive quarry.
One point of intersection between the exercise of agency and the evasion of accountability might be charisma. Kitamura’s narrators, perhaps because they are outwardly unassuming, tend to fixate on this quality, greedily parsing the advantages it confers. (Because we see the world through their eyes, the books themselves feel exquisitely attuned to performance; all of human affairs can seem to run on currents of attraction and repulsion.) In “Intimacies,” the former President has an aura of force and elegance, a smooth attentiveness, but he is just one mesmerizing figure in a story lousy with them. It is implied that the trial’s defense attorney and even Adriaan are coasting on their handsomeness. (In fact, many of the book’s male characters could pass for Christopher, the husband in “A Separation,” who “risked spreading his charm thin.”) As the book proceeds, this wary diagnosing of magnetism becomes a sort of narrative tic. The victim of the mugging has features that are “primal” and “memorable,” exuding “some dark charisma.” A young warlord evinces “a dazzling air of command.” And Adriaan’s wife, when she shows up, is—inevitably—“improbably beautiful and also highly polished, as if she lived in continual expectation of being observed.”
There is a whiff of courting the reader to this study of star power. By dwelling on others’ seductiveness, the narrator presents herself as relatively guileless and likably average. But one struggles not to notice that many of the book’s characters seem drawn irresistibly to her . There’s the dictator, for one. There’s Adriaan, who asks for the narrator’s phone number within a few minutes of meeting her, and, several months later, invites her to live in his home. The defense attorney tries to pick her up three times. The sister of the mugging victim converses briefly with her at a gallery event and then, smitten, e-mails a mutual friend, requesting to be put in touch.
I thought here of the psychological phenomenon called “ egocentric bias ,” which causes people to overestimate the degree to which others’ perceptions resemble their own. One effect of the bias, as the researcher Vanessa Bohns has demonstrated, is that we tend to downplay the pressures we place on those around us. In “Intimacies,” the narrator’s own power and persuasiveness seem veiled to her. This deepens Kitamura’s theme of accountability—we don’t take responsibility for things we don’t realize we’ve done—but, to me, it also creates a crack in the storytelling. “Intimacies,” like “A Separation,” is explicitly about closeness and distance, drawing together and pulling apart. Kitamura depicts these processes as strikingly physical, as if governed by literal magnetism—the tug of a man’s charm, the repellency of his deceit, the way a friend’s misfortune can both beckon and paralyze you. But, in a novel about seeking the correct calibration for various relationships (the narrator senses herself to be too separate from Adriaan, not separate enough from the dictator), placing so much weight on invisible influences elides the role of decisions, discretion, and judgment, reducing a complex dance of personalities to a game of positive and negative charges. It can feel as though Kitamura’s fascination with beauty exists in tension with the book’s richest theme: how we decide how close we get.
“Intimacies” is not a shallow novel, but it is, finally, a deep and layered novel about superficiality. One of my favorite moments takes place in the courtroom, after proceedings have ended for the day, when the narrator catches a glimpse of the dictator. “His shoulders slumped and he suddenly appeared much older,” she says. “I realized it must have taken him great effort to appear before the Court with his posture so erect, his bearing still presidential, to marshal what charisma remained, because contrary to popular belief, charisma was not inherent but had to be constantly reinforced.” For an instant, magnetism is doxxed, revealed as theatre, and the relief is that of leaving a brilliantly overlit room. But the implications of the moment run deeper: in exposing the pneumatics of charm, Kitamura insists that there are motivations behind it. People have reasons for pushing one another around, and for endlessly repositioning themselves; they have longings and aversions—entire histories—that elude even the sharpest eye. It would be a privilege to watch Kitamura, with the full scope of her intelligence and art, illuminate these intimacies, too.
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clock This article was published more than 2 years ago
Barack Obama’s summer reading pick ‘Intimacies’ is an unsettling novel about moral dilemmas
At the opening of Katie Kitamura’s intense, unsettling new novel, “ Intimacies ,” an unnamed narrator has left New York in a fugue of grief and signed a one-year contract in The Hague. “I rode the tram without purpose and walked for hours at a time,” she tells us, “so that I would sometimes become lost and need to consult the map on my phone.”
This woman knows no one in The Hague, which allows her to concentrate more than she might like on the legendary city with its “veneer of civility.” The harder she looks, the more she sees beneath the “docile surface” of the streets. Her insistent perception — the real action of this novel — is her greatest skill and her riskiest vulnerability.
“Intimacies” is very much a story that seems to be something familiar but soon morphs into something disorientingly strange. Soon after arriving in The Hague, the narrator begins dating a handsome man named Adriaan. Little has been articulated, but much assumed between them. “There was already a certain amount of routine to the way we were together,” she says. “That regularity had many possible meanings and was difficult to interpret, at times I thought it was the expression of an intrinsic ease between us, some deep familiarity superseding our many differences.”
One of those differences is that he has a wife and family.
As a single woman in a foreign city presuming on the unspoken plans of a married man, she knows she’s in a precarious position. That wariness, though, is not enough to keep her from falling in love or moving into Adriaan’s apartment when he goes to Lisbon to see his estranged wife. Adriaan says he plans to ask for a divorce. But then his calls become more infrequent, and his trip to Lisbon is inexplicably extended another week. And another. . . .
For a smart woman hyper-alert to the nature of language, Adriaan’s oblique, infrequent text messages create a crazy-making predicament. But the narrator’s attention to the subtlest inflections of communication is not merely a personality trait; it’s the central qualification for her job: She’s an interpreter working at the World Court.
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The incongruity between her domestic life and professional life is what makes “Intimacies” so fascinating. While the narrator is trying to figure out what’s going on with her boyfriend, she’s spending all day working on a trial that’s generating headlines around the world. The former president of a war-torn African country has been apprehended and brought to The Hague to answer charges that he committed crimes against humanity. (Think Charles Taylor or Laurent Gbagbo .) For reasons the interpreter cannot fathom, the former president’s defense team has requested her personally. His chief lawyer offers a chilling compliment: “He likes you.”
The former president, like the narrator, is never named, an omission that emphasizes their fraught and peculiar relationship. “My job,” she says, “is to make the space between languages as small as possible.” And as we learn more, we understand just what kind of psychological demands that process of translation involves in this setting.
Although the narrator is horrified by reports of the former president’s atrocities, her work requires her to draw so close to this elegant monster that she can inhabit his mind. During victims’ testimonies, she must attend to every bullet, every drop of blood, every scream. “Linguistic accuracy was not enough,” she says. “Our daily activity hinged on the repeated description — description, elaboration, and delineation — of matters that were, outside, generally subject to euphemism and elision.”
To ensure a fair trial, the interpreter believes she must engage in an act of intimacy analogous to love but essentially obscene. “Out of what I can only describe as an excess of imagination, he became the person whose perspective I occupied,” she says of the former president. “It was disquieting in the extreme, like being placed inside a body I had no desire to occupy. I was repulsed, to find myself so permeable.”
Through parts of this story, Kitamura is exploring impossibly remote territory; few of us will ever have any contact, let alone close contact, with someone who committed crimes against humanity. Her narrator’s experiences in the translation box raise some of the same questions as Edna O’Brien’s novel “ The Little Red Chairs ,” which imagines the life of a woman briefly infatuated with a man she doesn’t realize is Radovan Karadzic. But with her Jamesian attention to the slightest movement of bodies and words, Kitamura keeps “Intimacies” rooted to the ordinary domestic experiences of her narrator, her petty jealousies, her passing suspicions.
Review: Edna O’Brien’s ‘The Little Red Chairs’ confronts Radovan Karadzic
The effect is a kind of emotional intensity that’s gripping because it feels increasingly unsustainable. Who could endure that raw-nerve sensitivity to the power of language to love, to deceive, to promise, to kill? Kitamura pulls us through a rising panic of hyper-awareness until the story’s fever finally breaks with a note of hope and relief. But that can’t quell the novel’s reverberations, which expose something incomprehensible about the moral dimensions of modern life.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com .
By Katie Kitamura
Riverhead. 225 pp. $26
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Katie Kitamura Translates the Untranslatable
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By Catherine Lacey
- Published July 20, 2021 Updated Nov. 30, 2021
[ This is one of the Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2021. See the full list . ]
INTIMACIES By Katie Kitamura
Early in Katie Kitamura ’s fourth novel, “Intimacies,” the unnamed narrator recalls watching three street cleaners in The Hague “carefully extracting cigarette butts from between the cracks of the cobbled road, one by one by one … despite the fact that there were several well-placed public ashtrays on that stretch of street alone.” The sight of these immigrant men laboring with their “elephantine vacuum” exemplifies how “the docile surface of the city concealed a more complex and contradictory nature,” and how the “veneer of civility was constantly giving way, in places it was barely there at all.”
On first read this scene demonstrates the narrator’s quiet, observational mood, as she’s just left New York after her father’s death and “had begun looking for something, although I didn’t know exactly what,” but on reflection it pierces several thematic layers, and sets expectations. In this interpersonal thriller, Dutch methods of urban trash removal are rendered in greater detail than our heroine’s nearly absent back story. Character motivation and development are less important here than the systems within which those characters live.
As a court translator for an unspecified international entity, the narrator is tasked with intimately vanishing into the voices and stories of the “plethora of war criminals in our midst.” In her words, “it was the job of the interpreter not simply to state or perform but to repeat the unspeakable,” though she later wonders if translating the details of those atrocities caused them “to recede further and further into some state of unreality.” She eventually begins to see her colleagues as “marked by alarming fissures, levels of dissociation that I did not think could be sustainable.”
As another interpreter, Amina, relates an accusation against a former militia leader, she reflexively slips into “a voice of cold disapproval, as if she were a wife scolding a husband for some small domestic failing.” The unrepentant man on trial, offended by her tone, levies an intimate and intimidating look upon her. “Don’t shoot the messenger, she almost added, before remembering that this was precisely the kind of thing the accused did, it might even have been on the list of crimes, actually shooting the messenger. Although she knew there was nothing the man could do to her, she could not deny that she was afraid, he was a man who inspired fear, even while sitting immobile he radiated power.”
Kitamura’s prose elegantly breaks grammatical convention: Commas hitch complete thoughts together, quotation marks are eschewed and ancillary characters often interrupt the narration midsentence, without punctuation. This style mirrors the book’s concern with the bleeding lines between intimacies — especially between the sincere and the coercive — while Kitamura’s immense talent smooths the seams. Even in complex court scenes when the voices of interpreters, witnesses, lawyers and judges commingle, nothing is lost in her sleek and satisfying syntax.
Despite herself, our narrator has fallen into an entanglement with Adriaan, a man whose wife recently “went away to Lisbon for the weekend and never came back.” She learns of the marriage by way of an odious stranger at a party, a man named Kees who is coincidentally a defense lawyer for a former African president accused of ethnic cleansing, whose case she’ll soon be assigned. “It seemed extraordinary that they would trust this man,” she thinks, “a man of the flimsiest construction, in this most critical of matters.”
The lawyer’s appearance in our narrator’s personal and professional lives is one of many serendipities, a web of intimacies that scaffold the book: connections of violence, omission, infidelity or even the brief exposure of an overheard conversation. Intimate , intimacy and intimacies appear repeatedly in the prose, almost annoyingly so, yet synonyms are inadequate; intimacy is the structuring principle of “Intimacies” and no other word quite captures her meaning.
One of the most potent scenes in the novel comes when a young woman testifies to seeing her family slain by the former president’s militia. When a lawyer asks why she fled her hiding place to witness this horror, the woman pauses, so the interpreter pauses. “Because I wanted to protect my family,” she says. “How did you hope to protect your family?” the lawyer asks. “With my body. It is small and it does not look like much but it can stop a bullet.” As the narrator translates she cannot help looking at the former president, “who had no need for these layers of interpretation. Who sat bolt upright and did not move, and whose gaze was trained with utmost attention and care upon the witness.”
Reading, too, can be a deeply interpretive act, and a novel like this one offers the reader much to work with, raising a chorus of harmonic questions rather than squealing a single answer. Contemporary American novels too often deliver pre-solved moral quandaries and obvious enemies in service to our cultural craving for ethical perfection — the correct word, the right behavior, the sole and righteous position on myriad complex issues.
Kitamura works outside of this trendy literality by knowing, as the best writers do, that a story’s apparent subject does not determine its conceptual limits; plot summary would do this book no justice. Though the words “emotional labor,” “feminism” and “colonialism” never appear, it is still deeply engaged with these grand social issues, while it also makes subtle comments on everything from art to jealousy to gentrification.
Still — an ungenerous reader might note the male object of affection and assume the story is about a lonely woman’s search for love, simply because the narrator is slightly directionless and waiting for her Dutchman to come home. It is true that “Intimacies,” like Kitamura’s previous and equally engrossing “A Separation,” scrutinizes the knowability of those we love, depend upon and sleep beside. Yet Kitamura investigates these relationships as a lens for larger points, not as an end in themselves. The path a life cuts through the world, this book seems to say, has its greatest significance in the effect it has on others.
“Interpretation can be profoundly disorienting,” the narrator reflects, “you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken first by the subject and then by yourself, that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: You literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses its meaning.”
This disorientation might feel familiar: In a time when so many intimacies have been forced or foreclosed by quarantine, this novel is felicitous. Breath itself, that intimate air, has united our worlds in death and fear. Even global events — a pandemic, a protest, a war — arise first in the delicate space between people.
The sinister man on trial “is petty and vain but he understands the depths of human behavior. The places where ordinary people do not go. That gives him a great deal of power, even when he is confined to a cell.” Kitamura’s work also contains a keen understanding of human behavior, one that reaches far beyond the pages of this brief and arresting book; she travels to places that ordinary writers cannot go.
Catherine Lacey is the author, most recently, of “Pew.”
INTIMACIES By Katie Kitamura 225 pp. Riverhead Books. $26.
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Katie Kitamura's Intimacies Is an Elegant Dance Between a Translator and a War Criminal
President Obama selected the novel for his summer reading list—and you should too.
The narrator of Intimacies comes to us with a minimum of backstory. An only child, she’s traded New York for The Hague in the aftermath of her father’s death and her mother’s move to Singapore. Multilingual, she’s hunkered down as a translator for the World Court, speaking in English and French for defendants charged with heinous crimes. We don’t know her name or her exact age, although clues suggest she’s in her thirties or forties. She’s ephemeral, a water color blurred at the edges, and yet captivating. We fill in the contours from the sparse information Kitamura trickles out.
This woman lives beneath a professional bell jar, commuting by bus from her apartment to the Court, but she’s managed to cultivate a few friendships: Amina, a generous colleague on the cusp of maternity leave; Jana, a curator at a museum; and divorced Eline, who’s raising children with the help of her bookseller brother and his wife. The narrator embarks on a romance with the handsome if secretive Adriaan, who gradually reveals he’s separated from his wife Gaby, negotiating custody of their two daughters. As in A Separation, Kitamura digs deep into the quixotic nature of marriage, whether a person can ever truly know another.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
The work of a relationship is serious business, the prosecution of war crimes even graver. Under Amina’s tutelage, the narrator embraces her new role: “If a joke was made it was the interpreter’s job to communicate the humor or attempt at humor; similarly, when something was said ironically it was important to indicate that the words were not to be taken at face value,” Kitamura writes. “Interpretation was a matter of great subtlety, a word with many contexts, for example it is often said that an actor interprets a role, or a musician a piece of music.” Translation, then, is less a linear progression and more a winding journey, twisted by abrupt forks and dead ends. In crystalline prose, Kitamura probes the labyrinths of language and the riddles of our humanity.
As with all labyrinths, a Minotaur lurks at the heart. The narrator is assigned to translate for a West African “former president” accused of ethnic cleansing. He’s undeniably charismatic. Kitamura is drawn to seductions, sexual and otherwise; and this monster works his charm on her narrator, compromising her psychologically and perhaps her translations, too.
Intimacies is a judicious, cerebral novel, but Kitamura seasons it with dashes of glamor. There’s a hint of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy and Tom Buchanan, “careless people [who] smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.” (Kitamura tosses in a mention of Jay Gatsby to drive the point home.) A whiff of champagne clings to Intimacies: the narrator finds herself mingling with elites, as when she attends an exhibition opening at her friend’s museum. “Jana said that they had commissioned a food artist to make the dioramas, a young woman who had studied at the Rijksakademie and was now getting commissions from all the big biennials . . . Guests were crowding around the paintings, plates in hand, sawing away at sides of meat and cheese wheels through the various picture frames . . . I thought of Adriaan, it occurred to me that this was the world he had inhabited with Gaby. They would have circulated through this room with ease.”
Love, it turns out, is also suspect. When her relationship with Adriaan goes south (literally), the narrator throws herself into the trial. The further she ventures into the case, the cloudier her ethical clarity becomes; and she fears the former president is playing her like a violin. She feels grounded only when a brave 20-year-old eyewitness recounts the murders of her father and brothers. “Her voice remained low and firm,” the narrator observes. “She spoke with great deliberation, so that each word was like a link in a chain and the entire thing held fast, even as it moved across languages.”
The novel’s innovations build momentum as Kitamura jettisons quotation marks, allowing pronouns to float free of their referents. The young woman on the witness stand, telling her horrific tale, fuses with the “I” of her translator; the indeterminacy of storytelling here mirrors the narrator’s own inchoate sense of self. The comma is Kitamura’s secret weapon, deployed prolifically throughout Intimacies, giving equal weight to arguments and counter-arguments buzzing inside the narrator’s head, fulcrums that pivot the plot first this way, then that. The narrator cannot decide where she stands on the former president, she cannot decide where she stands on Adriaan, neutrality is a fantasy, the frequent commas highlight these contradictions.
Intimacies, then, chips away at moral platitudes while still holding up the commitments and compromises we make as families and communities. The fragility of those bonds. This slim, graceful novel punches above its weight as Kitamura explores tragedy on an epic scale, reckoning with the ways we deceive each other and ourselves. As her protagonist observes, “a narrative becomes persuasive not through complexity but conviction.”
A former book editor and the author of a memoir, This Boy's Faith, Hamilton Cain is Contributing Books Editor at Oprah Daily. As a freelance journalist, he has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Men’s Health, The Good Men Project, and The List (Edinburgh, U.K.) and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. He is currently a member of the National Book Critics Circle and lives with his family in Brooklyn.
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by Katie Kitamura
Reviewed by greg chase.
With Intimacies, her fourth novel, Katie Kitamura cements her status as one of contemporary fiction’s most controlled and perceptive writers, particularly when it comes to ambiguities of language and the risks of miscommunication. The novel’s unnamed first-person narrator has just moved to The Hague, where she works as an interpreter for a court clearly based on (though never explicitly identified as) the International Criminal Court. Her job is to translate testimony from one language into another in real time. As she recognizes, there’s something inherently contradictory about this work: legal proceedings demand “extreme precision,” whereas “great chasms” exist between the expressive possibilities of one language and those of another. The narrator is meant to be an “instrument” who facilitates legal proceedings, but her turns of phrase, as well as her affect and tone, can influence the outcome of a trial.
The novel hits its stride about a third of the way through, when the narrator is assigned to work with a team of lawyers defending an unspecified West African country’s ex-president, who has been accused of ethnic cleansing after a contested election. The accused comes off as scornful of the court and bored by the deliberations of his defense team, yet oddly attuned to the narrator’s presence. He frequently “nod[s]” at her during court sessions, “[a]s if to recognize the work that I performed.”
Meanwhile, the narrator struggles to find her footing in The Hague. She has one friend, a curator of Serbian-Ethiopian descent, and she is in a relationship with a married man who may or may not be in the process of separating permanently from his wife. We learn little about the narrator’s past, other than the fact that her father is dead, she is an only child, and her mother, with whom she is “not in the habit of regularly speaking,” now lives in Singapore. She has “native fluency in English and Japanese from my parents, and in French from a childhood in Paris.”
Through this dislocated narrator, Kitamura offers a fresh take on the relationship between the personal and the political. Set during the run-up to the Brexit referendum—and with concerns about the American presidential election hovering in the background— Intimacies explores how far one should seek to understand proponents of isolationism and intolerance. (At one point, during a commotion in the courtroom, the judge sternly instructs the former president, “ Please control your supporters, ” a line that will resonate with readers in chilling new ways after the events of January 6, 2021.)
In Kitamura’s hands, the narrator’s cosmopolitanism shades into moral relativism, a constitutional inability to make strong judgments or take decisive action. She is quick to recognize legitimate criticisms of the court, such as the fact that it “had primarily investigated and made arrests in African countries, even as crimes against humanity proliferated around the world.” More troublingly, she finds herself secretly rooting for the former president, “flinch[ing] when the proceedings seemed to go against him,” feeling that “of all the people in the city [ … ] [he] was the person I knew best.” It is as though the numerous languages she hears spoken around her have crowded out her sense of self.
Intimacies has its shortcomings. The scenes outside the court, which typically consist of the narrator having dinner or attending some sort of event with one of the novel’s secondary characters, can drag. Despite the intriguing political and philosophical questions it raises, Intimacies focuses on a relatively small group of cultured, upper-middle class characters and shows only a cursory interest in portraying other elements of Dutch society.
But Kitamura has a real gift for tone. She infuses seemingly mundane events—staying in someone else’s apartment, encountering the same person in two different contexts—with a powerful sense of dread. She calls to mind W. G. Sebald in her portrayal of the finite nature of human perspective as a kind of chronic confusion, a thick and inescapable “cloud of unknowing.”
Intimacies looks back on the political and cultural chaos of the last decade and wonders what kinds of epistemological and moral certainties remain available to us. It is more concerned with raising these questions than with attempting to offer clear answers; it is, in other words, a successful novel: subtle, carefully constructed, and not easily reducible to any kind of coherent political position.
Published on October 26, 2021
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by Katie Kitamura ‧ RELEASE DATE: July 20, 2021
This psychological tone poem is a barbed and splendid meditation on peril.
A watchful, reticent woman sees peril and tries not to vanish.
“Every certainty can give way without notice,” thinks the narrator of Kitamura’s stunning novel, a statement both true and freighted. It's a delight to accompany the narrator’s astute observational intelligence through these pages, as it was in A Separation (2017), which also unspooled completely in the mind of its speaker. Both slim books are pared down, without chapter headings or quotation marks. A murder unsettles A Separation ; a mugging destabilizes this new book . Its narrator is a temporary translator at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where an unidentified head of state is on trial for atrocities in the months before the Brexit vote. The accused specifically requests the narrator to translate for him in a claustrophobic meeting with his defense team: “ cross-border raid, mass grave, armed youth .” She hears and doesn’t hear the words amid her focus, just as she sees and doesn’t completely register events in her everyday life. “It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed,” she thinks, “the horrifying image or the voice speaking the unspeakable, in order to exist in the world we must and we do forget, we live in a state of I know but I do not know.” This is the crux of Kitamura’s preoccupation. She threads it brilliantly through the intimacies her character is trying to navigate: with new colleagues, women friends, and her beau, who goes away; with the work and with the nature of The Hague itself. Landscape holds a key, and on the final pages, the narrator intuits it might release her from some of the dread suffocating her. The novel packs a controlled but considerable wallop, all the more pleasurable for its nuance.
Pub Date: July 20, 2021
Page Count: 240
Review Posted Online: June 1, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021
LITERARY FICTION | GENERAL FICTION
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by Katie Kitamura
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SEEN & HEARD
THE LITTLE LIAR
by Mitch Albom ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 14, 2023
A captivating allegory about evil, lies, and forgiveness.
Truth and deception clash in this tale of the Holocaust.
Udo Graf is proud that the Wolf has assigned him the task of expelling all 50,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece. In that city, Nico Krispis is an 11-year-old Jewish boy whose blue eyes and blond hair deceive, but whose words do not. Those who know him know he has never told a lie in his life—“Never be the one to tell lies, Nico,” his grandfather teaches him. “God is always watching.” Udo and Nico meet, and Udo decides to exploit the child’s innocence. At the train station where Jews are being jammed into cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, Udo gives Nico a yellow star to wear and persuades him to whisper among the crowd, “I heard it from a German officer. They are sending us to Poland. We will have new homes. And jobs.” The lad doesn’t know any better, so he helps persuade reluctant Jews to board the train to hell. “You were a good little liar,” Udo later tells Nico, and delights in the prospect of breaking the boy’s spirit, which is more fun and a greater challenge than killing him outright. When Nico realizes the horrific nature of what he's done, his truth-telling days are over. He becomes an inveterate liar about everything. Narrating the story is the Angel of Truth, whom according to a parable God had cast out of heaven and onto earth, where Truth shattered into billions of pieces, each to lodge in a human heart. (Obviously, many hearts have been missed.) Truth skillfully weaves together the characters, including Nico; his brother, Sebastian; Sebastian’s wife, Fannie; and the “heartless deceiver” Udo. Events extend for decades beyond World War II, until everyone’s lives finally collide in dramatic fashion. As Truth readily acknowledges, his account is loaded with twists and turns, some fortuitous and others not. Will Nico Krispis ever seek redemption? And will he find it? Author Albom’s passion shows through on every page in this well-crafted novel.
Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2023
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023
GENERAL FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION
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by Mitch Albom
THE BOARDWALK BOOKSHOP
by Susan Mallery ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 31, 2022
A book begging to be read on the beach, with the sun warming the sand and salt in the air: pure escapism.
Three woman who join together to rent a large space along the beach in Los Angeles for their stores—a gift shop, a bakery, and a bookstore—become fast friends as they each experience the highs, and lows, of love.
Bree is a friendly but standoffish bookstore owner who keeps everyone she knows at arm’s length, from guys she meets in bars to her friends. Mikki is a settled-in-her-routines divorced mother of two, happily a mom, gift-shop owner, and co-parent with her ex-husband, Perry. And Ashley is a young, very-much-in-love bakery owner specializing in muffins who devotes herself to giving back to the community through a nonprofit that helps community members develop skills and find jobs. When the women meet drooling over a boardwalk storefront that none of them can afford on her own, a plan is hatched to divide the space in three, and a friendship—and business partnership—is born. An impromptu celebration on the beach at sunset with champagne becomes a weekly touchpoint to their lives as they learn more about each other and themselves. Their friendship blossoms as they help each other, offering support, hard truths, and loving backup. Author Mallery has created a delightful story of friendship between three women that also offers a variety of love stories as they fall in love, make mistakes, and figure out how to be the best—albeit still flawed—versions of themselves. The men are similarly flawed and human. While the story comes down clearly on the side of all-encompassing love, Mallery has struck a careful balance: There is just enough sex to be spicy, just enough swearing to be naughty, and just enough heartbreak to avoid being cloying.
Pub Date: May 31, 2022
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Review Posted Online: March 15, 2022
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022
FAMILY LIFE & FRIENDSHIP | GENERAL FICTION
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The Fleeting Oomph of “Intimacies”
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.
Old Stories Wear New Skins in “Burn the Negative” and “The Beast You Are”
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.
FICTION Intimacies By Katie Kitamura Riverhead Books 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.
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