The Interpreter

Suki Kim’s debut novel, The Interpreter (2003), revolves around a murder mystery, but offers much more than that. The novel provides a gripping portrayal of interior lives of 1.5 generation immigrant children, who are prematurely brought into the morally ambiguous adult world as interpreters for their non-English speaking parents. Though narrated in the third person, the novel stays close to the psyche of its protagonist Suzy Park, a 29-year-old Korean American woman. In a perpetual state of mourning, she hides from life by drifting from one temporary job to another, and from one married man, Damian, to another, Michael. All that remains of her past is an anonymous person, who keeps sending a bouquet of white irises on the anniversary of her parent’s death.

Though it was Grace, the older sister, who had always been the family interpreter, Suzy realizes that she is cut out for the job of a freelance Korean interpreter. The limited omniscient narrator observes: “The key is to be invisible. She is the only one in the room who hears the truth, a keeper of secrets.” For a moment, it seems like Suzy, an Ivy League drop out and a self-designated “kept woman” has finally found a comfortable niche. However, she is compelled to become not only a keeper but also an investigator of secrets, when she runs into clients who may be connected to the murder of her parents at their vegetable and fruit store.

Loneliness is an emotion that strongly pervades throughout this novel. Though the jaded characters do not shed tears, it is constantly raining in the boroughs of New York and Long Island. Kim’s careful construction of the quiet but roiling emotional terrain of her protagonist Suzy is what makes this book so compelling for me. Despite the unsolved murders and missing persons cases taking its time to pick up the pace, I could not put down the book and had to finish it red-eyed. I read The Interpreter during the summer when my goal was to get introduced a wider range of Korean American fiction. So, I loved that Kim took a nuanced approach to intergenerational and intra-ethnic conflicts depicted in her work.

Originally posted on AALF

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