• March 10, 2022

    Opening Round

  • Katie Kitamura


    Kaitlyn Greenidge

  • Judged by

    Jennifer Murphy


I read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s historical novel Libertie before diving into its competition, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. It was the longer of the two books and I wanted to make sure I had time to read it thoroughly, as I have a new puppy who’s destroying my leisure time. After tearing through the first section, finding it wondrous and just about perfect, I worried I’d made a mistake in reading Libertie first. This novel would undoubtedly be my choice for the winner I decided without having finished the book, let alone read the jacket copy of Intimacies. Nothing else could measure up.

Jennifer Murphy (she/her) is the author of the memoir First Responder, a Time Magazine pick for best new books of April 2021. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, as well as the New York Times, Salon, the New York Daily News, and other media outlets. She lives in Brooklyn. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

How does one “measure” a novel? Personally, I favor narratives with velocity; books that are unputdownable. Did I mention I have a new puppy? The book is competing for my time with the dog. Inventiveness matters to me, as does line-level beauty. I’m drawn to books that are timeless yet relevant to the current moment, ask thematically big questions, and ultimately inspire me to write. Above all I want to feel something while I’m reading: delighted, challenged, transported, moved.

Libertie is a coming-of-age story about family and community, freedom and slavery, life and death, and the long, circular road to finding oneself, which is another way to say finding home. The narrator is the young Libertie Sampson, a Black girl in Reconstruction-era Kings County who’s shouldered with her physician mother’s dream that she, too, embark on a medical career. Both Libertie and her mother were born free, and though her mother can pass, she cannot. Drawing on the life of Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black female doctor in New York State, Libertie grows up observing her mother treating patients. First, we meet the fatally heartsick Ben Daisy, mourning the loss of his love while battling the traumatic aftershocks of slavery. Can medicine cure him?

The questions the novel raises are not small ones, and considering the ongoing pandemic, felt achingly relevant: “What happens to the dead?” Libertie asks her mother after Ben Daisy leaps to his death in a river. Her mother replies they go to heaven with the Lord. “But what happens to their thoughts and minds?” Libertie presses. “Where does their will go?”

Having lost Ben Daisy, Libertie conflates her mother’s treatment of Ben with his tragic end, decides care is “monstrous,” and vows she won’t become a doctor, preferring music instead. She resolves to wash off her mother’s influence “like dust from the road,” and after being sent off to college in Ohio, betrays her by marrying a medical graduate named Emmanuel Chase. Then she journeys to his native Haiti to live with him and, she hopes, become a new person.

Life in Haiti doesn’t go well for Libertie. And as a reader this section of the novel didn’t go so well for me, either. Her low-grade misery, which commences in Ohio and trails her abroad as she becomes Emmanuel’s wife and learns she’s far from his equal, felt like a bit of a trudge. And while I found the epistolary passages between mother and daughter in the second half of the book hugely touching, the narrative engine lost steam starting around the midpoint and never quite regained it. I lost my sense that I was elsewhere—another time, another place—and was conscious that I was sitting at home, reading. Still, I loved this novel. Would I recommend it to people? Yes.

Onto Intimacies. On the page-turner front, this book takes the cake. It’s smart and strange and beautiful, crafted like a thriller, with a narrative engine that runs like a Ferrari. The novel centers on an unnamed woman who’s left New York—something I think about doing every day of my life—to work as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. I looked forward to reading the book no matter what I was doing (what puppy? let the puppy self-entertain) and found it structurally fascinating. The author plays with grammar in an interesting way so that at times a comma arrives where you’d expect a period and characters speak in overlapping soundbites without quotation marks. Somehow this works rather than becoming maddening.

Field NotesThe first Field Notes Limited Edition for 2022 is the “Signs of Spring” Edition.

Bright and warm, the covers of these Memo Books are heavily debossed with graphic patterns based on flowers that are among the very first to appear each spring, and then stamped with three luscious, reflective foils. The dot-graph insides are made from a superb paper from Strathmore.

Available now in 3-Packs and as part of a year-long subscription.

As for the plot, we learn early on that our narrator has lost her father, and her mother has moved to Singapore, leaving her geographically untethered. Is she bereaved? Not especially. We get more words devoted to immigrants picking up cigarette butts and a painting at her friend’s art exhibition than we do of any significant familial backstory.

In her work the narrator must translate for a former president charged with war crimes. The man on trial takes a liking to her, and against her better instincts she also comes to feel for him, pressurizing her idea that interpreters are neutral figures. This later makes her question her career and complicity in structural injustices more broadly:

The depersonalized nature of the task—I was only an instrument, and during the hours that I was there I was almost never spoken to directly, in fact the only person who bothered to address me at all was the former president—sat alongside the strange intimacy of the encounter, the entire thing was a paradox, impossible to reconcile.

And yet by the end of the novel she does reconcile it. She finds a place to stand.

Intimacies, which touches upon sexual harassment, Europe’s imbalanced focus on prosecuting criminals from Africa, Brexit, immigration, gentrification, and art, is also fueled by the narrator’s fixation on a friend’s brother’s mugging and a riveting love story. The narrator falls for a man named Adriaan, who she doesn’t know is married until one of his wife’s friends, who also happens to be a defense attorney for the president on trial, relays this info to her in passing. Does our genius interpreter remove herself from this possibly doomed love story? Why no, she does not. Is she dumb? Also no. Intriguingly, what makes her a great interpreter also enables her to see her personal life from Adriaan’s perspective.

There is nothing this narrator hasn’t thought about twice, from three or four different angles. The kaleidoscope of considerations she grants to matters large and small becomes a bit much at moments, and at times I wondered if the woman could simply enjoy a cup of tea without ruminating on where the leaves were harvested. Moreover, a misdemeanor that irritated me at the front of the novel was the overuse of the word “intimacy” and variations thereof. At one point I thought, “If she says ‘intimacy’ one more time I’m putting the book down.” The reoccurring word use gave me the impression the author believed I was a dodo who wasn’t going to grasp the thematic connective tissue of her work unless she kept cracking me over the head with it. As one of the professors in my MFA program once said, “Assume your readers are smart. Dumb people aren’t going to get it anyway.”

Despite these minor flaws, and while I loved Libertie, Intimacies is one of the best novels I’ve read in years and is my pick for the winner. As soon as I finished the novel, I wanted to read it again. It made me want to write. Nicholson Baker once said something in an interview that often comes to mind when I’m reading: “The question any novel is really trying to answer is, ‘Is life worth living?’” The response from Intimacies is “Yes.”

TODAY’S WINNER: Intimacies

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Laura Spence-Ash & Andrew Womack

Andrew Womack (he/him): Hello everyone, and welcome to our first reader commentary! As you may recall, this year we’re doing what we’ve done the past couple years, where we invite volunteers into the booth to join us in conversation about the day’s judgment. First up: Laura Spence-Ash!

Welcome, Laura! Please tell us where you’re at and what you do.

Laura Spence-Ash (she/her): I live in New Jersey, outside of Princeton, in an old farmhouse where I read, write, and teach. I’m currently working on the final edits for my debut novel, Beyond That, The Sea, which is forthcoming from Celadon Books in Winter 2023.

Andrew: Wonderful—and congratulations! How’s the process going?

Laura: Very well, thanks! It still feels somewhat surreal, to be honest. I first started working on this idea in 2009, so it’s been a minute, and the idea that in a year or so, other people will be able to read it is mind-blowing. I feel extremely lucky and very grateful for all the support I’ve received along the way.

Andrew: So let’s get into today’s judgment—which, as we see, features a brand-new doggo. First of all, any pets?

Laura: Dog lover here. We have two rescues: a five-year old mixed breed named Bella and a two-year old Great Pyrenees named Waldo. At 100 pounds, we don’t spend too much time wondering where he is but I am very, very glad to be beyond the puppy stage. What are the distractions in your life that make it hard to focus?

Andrew: Pandemics. How about you?

Laura: Twitter. Email. Impending doom.

Andrew: A lot of that too lately, tbh.

Something I always enjoy about Tournament judges’ decisions is when they work at unlocking what the whole deal with this event is anyway. And I like how Judge Murphy phrases that—in a way I’m not sure I’ve heard before—which is when she asks, “How does one ‘measure’ a novel?”

For her, an essential parameter is how “unputdownable” a book might be. And I do love that. Not just that it envelops you, but that the book compels you to keep reading—it’s a powerful feeling, one I’m sure we’ve all had before, and I think an apt way to calculate your preference in a contest like this. What about you, Laura, how does “unputdownable” rate for you in your reading preferences?

Laura: I love books that do that—it reminds me of the way I read when I was a child, when I would lie on the couch and disappear into the world of Jane Eyre or that of Jo March, and an entire afternoon would fly by. I’ve found it harder, over the past few years, to find books that can compete with the noise from the world. Recent novels that have succeeded have been Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle and Lauren Groff’s Matrix. And I felt that way about Intimacies as well. I read it in a day; I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t want the book to end or to leave that world. I had the great opportunity to hear Kitamura read from it (in person!) this summer, and her reading had the same effect. What books have you fallen into recently?

Andrew: Recently? None, I have to admit. The last book I absolutely couldn’t escape, though, was Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. Maybe the noise has grown too much? I’m not sure I can fault any of the books I’ve read. It’s just that nothing since has drawn me in like that. That’s a great one for the Commentariat, though: What’s the last book that sucked you in, leaving you unable to do anything else?


Next, I’d like to address that Nicholson Baker quotation mentioned by the judge. What are the novels that make you respond that way, that life is worth living?

Laura: I loved the new Claire Keegan novel, Small Things Like These, for exactly this reason. There is such hope and love at the end of that novel, and a belief in doing the right thing. I didn’t read Station Eleven until after I watched it on HBO, but both the novel and the series are so focused on the value of life and, in particular, the necessity of art. For me, there was also something very life-affirming about Libertie, especially in the way it ends. Do you agree with what Baker said? Are there other questions that a book generally asks?

Andrew: OOOohh, this is a good one. And I’m not sure whether or not I agree with the Baker quote! I think I need a little more context from the interview, and I was able to find it:

Minor, major—those words have never done much for me. I don’t understand them. The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living? That’s a major question, a huge question, but the best way to ­answer it might not be to crank the novelistic universe into a crude, lurching ­motion by employing a big inciting incident. Sometimes life provides only the tiniest of inciting incidents—that your left shoelace snaps within a day of your right one. That’s enough for me. When something is beautiful, it can’t be minor. Also I think it’s neat when a novel offers you miscellaneous helpful tips or tricks or facts. When it’s a friendly companion, when it does you good on various levels. A lot of novels bully us into assenting to their importance. I’m tired of that.

Looking at it from the perspective of too many novels answer the question of whether life is worth living by creating this big, inciting moment, then I would agree. Something I notice every year when we put together the Tournament long list—when I’m gathering and poring over countless assets for books—is how so much jacket copy operates in that very same way, a la, “Harvey is a sludge miner working in the bowels of a zeppelin that’s been falling to earth for more than 1,000 years. Will is an accountant who has a thing for ‘numbers’ that no one else believes exist. When they meet, their worlds—and indeed, our perceptions of reality—will change forever.”

Will Harvey and Will show us life is worth living? I certainly hope so. But maybe they can get there in a less bombastic way?

Laura: I totally agree about the big, inciting moment—most of lived life happens in those small, left-and-right shoelace ways and that’s generally what I enjoy reading. I far prefer fiction that focuses on the quotidian, on the little things, on the small moments. On character rather than plot. On language! (See Libertie and Intimacies!) I wonder, though, if our inability to focus as of late, as we discussed earlier, is somehow connected to this—do we increasingly require these larger-than-life books in order to make us pay attention? Is it somehow too hard to focus on the small when everything is crashing around us?

Andrew: Your question is hitting at what I think is a weird moment for me, personally—though I imagine I’m not the only one. I’ve been feeling the pandemic lately, this wash of time across two years, as a period where the details of living have been difficult to grasp. I don’t think I’ve ever been less present, and I imagine that’s because I’ve been so absorbed with everything before and after this hard period. And now, at this moment here in early March we’re in an entirely different difficult moment.

I wonder if there’s something to Baker’s point there—at least in the context of the pandemic—about presence, and how that’s where what matters really happens. What do you think?

Laura: Great point. I like your phrase “this wash of time”—it’s been very hard for me to remember specific moments over the past two years. I suppose it’s because every day has been so similar to the day before. And yet I find this lack of presence to be somewhat ironic, because it seems as though this is when we should be the most present. We can’t comfortably plan for the future, and we’ve been made painfully aware that the present moment is fleeting.

I’ve begun a practice of reading something slowly each day, and that’s helped me with being more present as I read. It forces me to slow down, to pay attention to the details, to consider how one sentence leads into the next. It’s helped me to fall in love with reading again; it’s helped me to quiet the noise, and, as you said above, it’s helped me to figure out what matters, both in reading and in life. Have you found any good ways to return to your more present self?

Andrew: Not yet. But I’m really, really working on it.

Thank you, Laura, for joining us today. We really appreciate your time. Everyone, we’ll see you again tomorrow, when Matrix faces Subdivision!


2022 Tournament of Books merch

New 2022 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we’re asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


Welcome to the Commentariat

Population: You

To keep our comments section as inclusive as possible for the book-loving public, please follow the guidelines below. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate or abusive comments, such as ad hominem attacks. We ban users who repeatedly post inappropriate comments.

  • Criticize ideas, not people. Divisiveness can be a result of debates over things we truly care about; err on the side of being generous. Let’s talk and debate and gnash our book-chewing teeth with love and respect for the Rooster community, judges, authors, commentators, and commenters alike.
  • If you’re uninterested in a line of discussion from an individual user, you can privately block them within Disqus to hide their comments (though they’ll still see your posts).
  • While it’s not required, you can use the Disqus <spoiler> tag to hide book details that may spoil the reading experience for others, e.g., “<spoiler>Dumbledore dies.<spoiler>”
  • We all feel passionately about fiction, but “you’re an idiot if you loved/hated this book that I hated/loved” isn't an argument—it’s just rude. Take a breath.
blog comments powered by Disqus