The Interpreter is an ambitious novel by Suki Kim, a mystery about family, immigration, and alienation. Suzy Park is a young woman about to turn thirty who is haunted by the death of her parents. They were murdered five years earlier and their murder was never solved. The first half of the novel is languorous and depressive, filled with the ennui that holds Suzy in a kind of stasis, forever in relationships with men who are married and who will never place her first, drifting from job to job, never finishing her degree after quitting in her final semester. She spends a lot of her time sleeping and walking around New York City, her mind unspooling the past.
She is estranged from her only living relative, her sister Grace. She is filled with guilt that she disappointed her parents who disowned her and never made an effort to heal that breach before they died. The police finally have a clue and want her to come in and answer questions but she has no answers for them.
The pace quickens about midway through the book when by coincidence, a translating job for a deposition involves someone who worked for her parents. When the lawyer repeats questions, she questions him about her parents and discovers they were disliked in the community. It does not surprise her. Should she feel shame that she thinks that if people wanted them dead, it was probably their doing? Where is her sister?
There are many fascinating ideas in The Interpreter, but it is such hard work to get to them. The story is slow, it moves forward as in a fugue, just like Suzy. It is so foggy at the beginning that I had to force myself to keep reading even though Kim has interesting things to say about immigration and belonging. Suzy is trapped, feeling neither American nor Korean, “stuck in a vacuum where neither culture moved nor owned her.” This is far more interesting than the mystery which Suzy pursues haphazardly. There is no logic in her search, just glimmers of memory that propel her to question different people.
She learns her parents were not what she thought they were. She learns her sister was a better sister than she ever imagined her to be. The pace picks up toward the end and then races to a conclusion, perhaps faster than it should. The mystery is “solved” but what about Suzy and Grace? The ending is slightly ambiguous, as it should be. The entire book is about ambiguity in memory, in identity, in everything.