Suki Kim’s first novel, The Interpreter, incisively tells the story of emotionally detached, alienated Korean American Suzy Park. A few days before her thirtieth birthday in November, 2000, Suzy finds herself confronted with new, unexpected information concerning the murder of her parents at their Bronx grocery store, exactly five years earlier. She embarks on a quest to find the truth behind this double killing.
As the novel opens, Suzy is working as an interpreter, hired to translate the testimony of Korean speakers at court and at legal depositions. This work ties Suzy tightly to the world of first-generation Korean immigrants trying to make a living in New York City’s groceries, dry cleaners, nail salons, and fish markets, just as her parents had to do during their lifetimes.
In a beautifully crafted scene of bittersweet irony, Suzy inadvertently learns that a man whose words she is hired to translate actually knew, and intensely disliked, her parents; he does not realize that she was their daughter. While a detective repeatedly asks Mr. Lee questions about his practice of hiring illegal immigrants at his grocery store, Suzy uses the opportunity to substitute her own questions about Mr. Lee’s relationship with her parents for those of the detective. She repeats Mr. Lee’s earlier answers instead of what he really reveals about Mr. and Mrs. Park, about whom Mr. Lee believes he is being questioned by the police now.
Suzy learns that her parents were ruthless in their business practices, firing those whom they owed back wages and threatening them as well. Mr. Lee suggests contacting Kim Young Su, a courageous man who stood up to the Parks and appears to have been defeated by them. Ironically—the Korean subculture of New York City appears to be a small world—Mr. Kim was the person for whom Suzy translated in the book’s first episode. In addition, another police officer, Detective Lester, suddenly leaves a phone message for Suzy, indicating that there is fresh new evidence in the case he had dismissed as a random killing five years ago.
Suzy’s new knowledge and involvement in the investigation triggers a renewed desire to get in touch with Grace, her sister, one year older than Suzy. The Interpreter paints a melancholic picture of the two sisters, who grew up in mutual isolation. For reasons of her own, Grace never let Suzy close to her. When they were little, Grace fiercely guarded what little privacy she had on the upper of two bunk beds, where she often retreated, reading on her own. She even refused Suzy’s present of a book, telling her that nobody would determine what she read.
As Suzy finds out in the course of her investigation, Grace has suffered from a burden imposed on her by their parents. Grace had to translate, and thus know, all of their morally reprehensible transactions, including those with the American immigration authorities. Grace tries to leave for college and study religion, only to return home before leaving again to become a high school teacher. Her solitary, apparently model existence becomes questionable after Suzy learns that Grace has disappeared.
Only a few days before, Grace had visited the Montauk lighthouse on Long Island, the easternmost part of New York State. Here the sisters had scattered the ashes of their parents, and Suzy makes the trip there every year in November, the month of her birthday as well as the anniversary of her parents’ death.
Suzy finds out that Kim Young Su’s wife is buried there as well. Thirteen years ago, she had committed suicide after being wronged by the Parks. As the plot thickens, Suzy realizes that her sister has embarked on a quest to punish those who killed their parents. Another Korean grocer, Mr. Lim, may be shadowing the two sisters.
The Interpreter focuses on much more than Suzy’s investigation into the death of her parents and offers more than a compelling mystery story. As the novel’s title suggests, Suzy’s profession leads her to reflect on the intricacies of her occupation and the nature of language, translation, and interpretation itself. Good interpreters must be able to convey the true meaning of the person whose words they translate, Suzy realizes. Ironically, she finds that she is better than judges and juries at determining the guilt or innocence of the accused for whom she translates. Her sense of...
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