Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Genre: Multi-cultural fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publicist
First line: I was born with a talent.
After her father dies, Kimberly Chang and her mother leave Hong Kong and come to the USA to make a better life for themselves. They are indebted to Kim’s aunt, and so are forced to live in an uninhabitable apartment, while Kim’s mom works in a sweatshop. Their only hope for a better life is for Kim to obtain an education. She’s extremely intelligent, and does well in school, in spite of her poverty, poor English, and difficulty fitting in. Just when Kim and her mother seem finally to be out from under her aunt’s jealous and greedy eye, Kim is forced to make a decision, and her choice will determine not only her fate, but those of the people she loves.
Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation made Entertainment Weekly’s list of must-read summer reads, and for good reason. I was a bit late in getting to it, but am so glad I didn’t wait any longer, as it is beautifully written, both fish-out-of-water tale and coming-of-age story. Kim is a wonderful character, a young girl who is put in nearly impossible circumstances. She is torn between her desire to fit in in America and her duty to honor her mother, who doesn’t always understand how difficult it is for Kim. She faces so much that makes it impossible for her to be like her fellow students: living without a telephone with which her friends can contact her; wearing homemade underwear that are fully visible when she changes for gym class; not being able to participate in extra-curricular activities because she needs to help her mom meet her quota at the factory. She can’t even visit her friends’ homes because they would expect to reciprocate and visit Kim’s apartment, which is in deplorable condition. And even those issues are dwarfed by the constant threat of hunger and homelessness.
Kwok draws on her own childhood as an immigrant from Hong Kong, and so the novel is completely realistic. Kim’s resilience and intelligence drew me into the story right away. I also related to Kim’s mother’s desire to provide the best possibilities and chances in life for her daughter, all while living in a culture that she can’t even begin to understand. The Changs are two strong women, women who face the worst that life can throw at them, and yet come out shining. Highly recommended.