What does a normal childhood consist of? Maybe you’re thinking of married parents, 2.5 kids, a house in the suburbs. Maybe you’re thinking of something a bit more involved. But you’re probably not thinking of Suzy Park’s kind of childhood, which is about as far from normal as it’s possible to get.
At 29, Suzy Park is finally starting to realize just how abnormal her own upbringing was. The children of Korean immigrants, she and her sister Grace rebelled against the harsh discipline and conflicting cultural values of their parents; Suzy was ostracized from the family for having an affair with a college professor’s husband. Even after the tragic murder of both parents – shot, execution-style, in the grocery store they owned – Grace refused to have anything to do with Suzy. Now, five years later, Suzy is utterly adrift in life. She works part-time as an interpreter for the court system, and spends her free hours watching soap operas and ignoring calls from her jet-setting married lover. When a chance encounter at court with a Korean immigrant gives her a clue about her parents’ unsolved murder, Suzy suddenly discovers a purpose in life: she must find out the truth about their death, and the secrets that tore her family apart. But is it too late to salvage her relationship with Grace, her only remaining relative?
Author Suki Kim, herself an immigrant from South Korea, writes fluidly and well in this suspenseful first novel, creating an eerie ambience out of the makeshift, fragmented lives of immigrants. Her vivid description draws a fascinating portrait of the Korean community in New York City – from grim and oppressive immigration offices to the run-down bars and brothels where Asian gangs flourish. Against this colorful background, Suzy is a cipher: seemingly devoid of any personality, history, or emotion, her relentless blankness frustrates and alienates those who try to create bonds with her. Which is not to say she’s a boring protagonist; watching events unfold from her point of view, we come to understand how strongly she keeps her fear and loneliness in check with studied indifference.
At times, the choppy, jerky narrative is uncomfortably abrupt; it’s a stylistic choice reflecting Suzy’s conflicted state of mind and her unusual habits (her days stacking up in uneven layers of tedium and apprehension), but it can be confusing when trying to keep track of the ever-thickening plot. There are a few hackneyed elements – like anonymous, threatening phone calls, consisting of either ominous silence or whispered warnings – that don’t contribute much and never get fully resolved. But overall, the answer to the mystery, when it comes, is a satisfying and believable solution that fits the mood and setting of the story.
Dark and atmospheric, this intriguing book – part noirish murder mystery, part coming-of-age novel – is both enigmatic and compelling. Despite its occasional unevenness and a few unlikely plot devices, the inventive backstory and careful description mostly succeed in bringing the story to life. A riveting thriller with a decidedly sinister mood, The Interpreter is anything but normal.