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First Fiction

January 26, 2003|Mark Rozzo

The Interpreter

Suki Kim

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

294 pp., $24

Suzy Park, a Korean American courtroom interpreter, grew up all around New York, shuttling from one neighborhood to another as her immigrant parents slaved away at various grocery jobs. But the New York we find in Suki Kim's fascinating "The Interpreter" is more like the one that impresses itself upon the newcomer: There are wide-eyed asides about apartment-hunting in the East Village, about the ethnic breakdown of the Queens-bound 7 train and about the heavenly firmament affixed to the ceiling at Grand Central. It's hard to tell whether Kim -- who grew up in South Korea before moving to the States at age 13 -- is still in the throes of a New York honeymoon or whether it's just one of the many clever ways she lets us know that her heroine, the interpreter perched between two languages, is an eternal stranger in the city she calls home.

Suzy's here-nor-thereness is made ever more vivid by the fact that she can hold down relationships only with married men (a Columbia professor and an impatient jerk of a businessman); that her interactions with her only sister, the beautiful and now apparently born-again Grace, have become nonexistent; that she's teetering on the verge of 30 and still drifting like an undergrad; and that her stern and embittered parents were gunned down in their Queens market five years ago. Orphaned, estranged and more attentive to the trivia of her environment than to her own needs, Suzy has a linguistic expertise that appears to cause more displacement than belonging.

Although her parents always railed about the importance of education, her and Grace's fluency in English was always a betrayal: "The girls were bad girls because they spoke English, rather than their native Korean." Now, as an interpreter, Suzy edits the testimonies of frightened and beset Korean Americans. And one afternoon, while peppering a witness with her own questions, she begins to untangle the twisted circumstances surrounding her parents' unsolved murders.

"The Interpreter" is a seductive, if obvious, allegory, spun out in appropriately broken prose, that figures translation as detective work. Yet, in Suzy's ambivalent world, nothing could be so pat. Translation, as she discovers to her dismay, can also be downright criminal.

*

Final Witness

Simon Tolkien

Random House: 278 pp., $24.95

Simon Tolkien, as the jacket of this PBS-ready mystery tells us, is the grandson of the legendary creator of "The Lord of the Rings." Yet there's nothing remotely wizardly about the present Tolkien's work. Instead of hobbits and talking trees, what we get is a readable and appropriately overheated novel about that evergreen British preoccupation -- class -- wrapped up in the guise of a courtroom whodunit: Lady Anne Robinson, the wife of Defense Minister Peter Robinson, has been shot to death in the House of the Four Winds, the family's ancestral manse. And the murder looks more like a rubout than a bungled burglary, at least from what teenage son, Thomas, saw, hiding behind a bookcase while the killers did their foul deed.

What ensues is a cozy yarn about seriously conflicted family loyalties, the ripe contrast between town and country (Thomas' aloof father spends all his time in London) and the irreconcilable differences between aspiration and privilege. The prime suspect, standing trial throughout (Tolkien is himself a barrister), is the newly minted Lady Robinson, formerly Greta Grahame, Peter's sex-bomb assistant. Greta is both conniving witch and sympathetic working-class babe. Is it simply that Greta "doesn't know her place"? Or is she a ruthless plotter who has usurped Lady Anne, enacting a Shakespearean power grab?

Matters are, of course, complicated by the fact that Thomas is hopelessly fixated on Greta's cleavage while also wanting her pilloried. And then there's the turncoat Peter, who always leaves Thomas isolated and resentful. Is Greta really a killer, or is the overstimulated Thomas on the warpath? "Final Witness" is more middle of the road than Middle Earth, and it probably won't inspire any role-playing games or Hollywood blockbusters, but Tolkien does pull off this mystery -- half Christie and half Grisham -- with a certain panache.

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