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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #48 (November 25-December 1, 2003), page 16.
By Suki Kim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
Hardbound, 294 pages, $24.00
By Josephine Bridges
"November is a strange month anyway, not quite the winter, not quite the end of a year, and Suzy not quite thirty."
The Interpreter begins in early November and ends late the same month, at approximately the same time you will be reading this review. November is a month of difficult anniversaries for protagonist Suzy Park, and this particular November is a month of terrible discoveries. Itís difficult to imagine a book both grim and luminous, but Suki Kim has written such a book, and itís her first. Congratulations to a splendid new author. The Interpreter is nothing short of brilliant.
Suzy Park is a Korean interpreter, and this book is in part an examination of languages and the gulfs between them, how we communicate and how we fail to do so. "Neither of her parents had spoken much English. Interpreting is almost a habit," the author writes of Suzy. Suzyís older sister Grace, a figure lurking at the edges of the narrative but never quite entering it, was her parentsí first interpreter. The girlsí father "seemed to resent Grace for relating to him what he did not want to hear Ö The ordeal of having to rely on his young daughter for such basic functions humiliated him." One of Suzyís terrible discoveries is that Grace interpreted for their parents in a set of circumstances that probably led to their murders five Novembers ago.
The Interpreter is also an exploration of the lives of immigrants to the United States. "Lacking a good nightís sleep," Suzy thinks about a stranger. "They all do, these immigrant men." Trying to understand why Grace chose to scatter their parentsí ashes in Montauk, Suzy wonders if her parents had ever been there. "Like most immigrants, they never took a vacation." Interpreting at a deposition, Suzy is astonished by the prosecuting attorneyís ignorance. "What does he think a fruit-and-vegetable market is? A Wall Street office? A nine-to-five, suit-and-tie job?" Suzy, who remembers nothing of Korea and doesnít even have a passport, herself lives between two cultures. "She kept up with the language. She followed the custom. But knowing about a culture was different from feeling it. She would bow to the elders without the traditional respect such bows required. She would bite into the pungent spice of kimchi without tasting its sad, sour history."
Suki Kimís first novel is also a thoughtful mystery. Suzy Parkís own life is largely a mystery to her, and this makes her a very sympathetic character. Her phone has been ringing four times, then stopping, again and again. Someone has anonymously sent her a bouquet of white irises for each anniversary of her parentsí death. When she was a girl, "the family never stayed in one address for longer than a year. It was as if they were on the run. From what, Suzy had no clue." As Suzy begins to learn her parentsí terrible secret, she recognizes a mystery within herself: "Sometimes the answer is there even before you are told. You may have suspected it all along. It has only been a matter of time."
The deftness and authority with which Suki Kim writes are dazzling. A sentence half a page long follows a sentence of six words. The author repeats key phrases, all of them distressing, and they echo like stones knocking against the sides of a bottomless well as they plummet endlessly. To her great credit, Suki Kim writes boldly about the dark side of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Waiting for a security check at a criminal court, Suzy reflects that she is the only Asian, surrounded by black people. "Attorneys, though, often are not black. Judges, almost never Ö They must use a separate entrance, hidden in the back. The power structure is pretty clear. Between those who get locked up and those who do the locking is a colored matter." Even more startling, and stated with a fierce certainty, is her simple declaration, "Immigrants are not Americans."
The Interpreter is a grueling read, but itís worth the discomfort a thousand times over for the beauty of the writing and the depth of the insight here. Iíve read it twice already, and I may return to it again while I wait until Suki Kim writes her next novel.