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THE INTERPRETER
by Brooke Robinson
Harper, September 2023
320 pages
$18.99
ISBN: 0063299887


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Revelle Lee is the cheery name of the first person narrator of Australian playwright Brooke Robinson's debut thriller. Revelle is far from cheery. She tends to assume that the worst will happen every time the phone or doorbell rings and she feels that she must perform impeccably to ward off disaster. She is a polyglot, fluent in at least ten languages and uses this skill as a freelance interpreter. As such, she is often called to courtrooms to interpret testimony and she is acutely aware of the necessity that she be absolutely accurate in her English rendering of what the witness has said in one of her other languages.

She is particularly stressed at the moment because she is in the final stages of adopting Elliot, a little boy who has been taken into care because his birth parents have been deemed unfit to care for him. Revelle is convinced that she will not be granted permission to adopt and steels herself for rejection before every scheduled meeting with the social worker in charge of the case. Elliot has been bounced around by social services frequently enough not to become attached to this prospective mum, so he appears largely indifferent to the outcome of these meetings. He does, however, become instantly smitten with Sandra, who briefly baby-sits him when Revelle is called away.

Poor Elliot is rapidly deprived of Sandra's company when she dies in the home of her employer, a spoiled and arrogant woman who is being charged with dangerous driving. Revelle had interpreted for a witness at the trial. Challenged by the victim's husband and repelled by the defendant's attitude, she begins to weaken in her commitment to absolute interpretive impartiality. A shift of emphasis, a change of a word and the verdict might slide from innocent to guilty, and justice, at least in Revelle's view, is done.

An unsettling idea but on reflection not altogether persuasive. It assumes that the jury is listening with rapt attention to every word. Maybe. But it is an idea that someone like Revelle would come up with, because despite all her negative expectations, she also takes great pride in the power she believes she wields in court in her importance as interpreter. Between her anticipations of doom and her conviction of her utter importance Revelle's mind is not a pleasant place to be. The reader is trapped in it, however, since Revelle recounts all the action.

Nor is she the only first-person narrator. Periodically and set helpfully in italics, another, unidentified voice provides an account of their hatred of Revelle, how they blame her for causing the loss of a child, and how they are determined to seek revenge. We are not told what Revelle did to deserve such outrage. Both narrators are unreliable, their vision warped by emotions over which they have no control.

The problem with all this is that we are confined inside the minds of two unpleasant and mentally unbalanced characters. The narrative arc demands we sympathize with Revelle who at least isn't planning violence, but I found that impossible. Why did this woman want to adopt a little boy? She had had a terrible childhood, dragged about the globe by a mother who resented her, uprooted every year or two to go somewhere else. True, that's how she learned all those languages, but she never experienced stability or love. Now she's trying to adopt poor Elliot and social services seem willing to let her. What makes them or us believe she will make a good mother?

If a thriller of this type is to succeed it is absolutely necessary that the prospective victim be sympathetic. Stupidity, naivete, or recklessness we can forgive, but Revelle is seriously disturbed. It is impossible to applaud if she survives her nemesis because Elliot is only six and all he has known about love to date is that it is a word you say instead of good-bye.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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