by Suki Kim
294 pages, hardcover
$24.00 Canada $38.95
Review by Liana Manukyan
The story of The Interpreter by Suki Kim begins and ends with the main character, Suzy, finding herself completely alone in a crowded, public place. Given this fact, one might assume that Suzy's state of being has not altered by the end of the novel. This is, of course, not the case.
Suzy's story is about her search for a home, and though it begins and ends with Suzy living in the same apartment in New York City, her search is, in the end, a successful one. It is the sense of belonging to someone and not the sense of belonging somewhere that finally brings Suzy home.
Suzy Park is a freelance interpreter. The story opens with her arriving early for an interpreting job. She takes refuge from the rain at a nearby crowded McDonald's, where a middle-aged Korean man gives her a seat at his table. He is Mr. Kim, a man who will play an important role in Suzy's search for her parents' killers.
On an early November morning some five years back, Suzy's parents were shot dead at the grocery store they owned. Every year since then, on the anniversary of their death, Suzy has received a bouquet of white irises from an unknown person. It is now November once again, and the irises have arrived.
We find out that Suzy has an older sister, Grace, from whom she has been estranged for a number of years. Suzy has feelings of guilt associated with her parents' death, since, at the time of their death, she was also estranged from them. Suzy slowly reveals the reason for this estrangement, and we come to know more about her past.
The mystery in the novel and Suzy's search for answers to the questions surrounding her parents' death is the main thread in the plot, and yet it is not the main theme of the story. What appears again and again as we turn the pages of the book is Suzy's struggle to find a home. What we are aware of at all times is her feeling of utter loneliness.
Suzy was born in Korea and moved to the United States when she was five. Her parents have always put down the American culture and have insisted on Suzy doing things according to Korean tradition. Suzy does not remember anything of her life in Korea. She, like many immigrant children, longs to be an all-American girl. And yet, when interpreting for Korean immigrants at various courts around the city, she finds herself siding with the Koreans, many of whom are in court because they are being deported. There is a strong presence of the Korean culture throughout the book, most vividly in the form of food. A memorable scene in it is when Suzy finds herself in a Korean neighborhood, having bone-marrow soup with a side of kimchi. The restaurant seems to be a place where the food cures all illnesses.
The Interpreter tells the story of immigrant life in America. It is about the children of immigrants, who find themselves in the middle of the old world and the new, and without a sense of belonging to either. It is also about loneliness, the loneliness of being separated from one's family, the family that is after all the source of one's being."'He felt suffocated by his family's love, and yet he couldn't help being a part of it,'" Suzy's friend says to her about Vincent Van Gogh. Suzy cannot help being a part of her family's love either, however it is expressed.
Suzy shows us that her sense of place has shaped her to a great extent, and has led her to her present life situation. The book makes it evident that no one, perhaps, has a better understanding of the influence that country, state and city have over a person than an immigrant.
"The final answer was Korea. All of their discontent, their misery, their endless wanderings through the slums of outer New York happened only because they had left their country. The houses they kept moving through were temporary shelters with torn mattresses on the floor, because America could never be home." A result of the immigrant experience is often an immigrant's reluctant acceptance that he or she cannot move back to the old country coupled with the stubborn insistence that America is not home.
Suzy's choice of work reflects her need to see herself, her family and all other Koreans at peace with America and with the choice they have made to move there. As the interpreter, she must bridge the gap between the two cultures and the two groups of people to which she belongs.
The Interpreter is a carefully crafted piece. Suki Kim is able to move the story forward with the force of suspense. Embedded in the frame of a mystery, however, are questions of identity, belonging, loneliness, family, loyalty, and love.