Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Release Date: April 29, 2010
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
When Kimberly Chang arrives in the United States with her mother from Hong Kong, she expects to find a better life with the help of her aunt. But Kimberly’s aunt is less gracious than they’d hoped; she puts them in a filthy apartment in an almost-condemned building in New York City, one with no heat. Kimberly’s mother works in a factory under difficult conditions, with most of her salary eaten away by her “debt” to her sister. Kimberly realizes that the best way out of this nightmare is by getting an education, but first she most overcome social and cultural hurdles as well as a language barrier in order to succeed.
Girl in Translation is an expertly written, pitch-perfect coming of age novel. When the novel begins Kimberly is a shy, middle school-aged girl who doesn’t know what to think of this new country she finds herself in. She doesn’t understand English well enough to keep up at school, and her teacher seems to intentionally make her life difficult. For awhile, Kimberly considers giving up, but when she sees how hard her mother is working at the factory to give her a better life, Kimberly knows she must do everything she can to succeed. Her drive and determination is admirable, especially considering the obstacles she faces.
The beauty of Girl in Translation is watching Kimberly grow up. While she never forgets how much her mother is sacrificing to make her life better, Kimberly can’t help but resent their circumstances. Why must she work at the factory after school instead of hanging out with friends, like a normal person? Why do they have to live in such squalor, a place where she can’t bring her best friend? I absolutely loved how Kwok balanced Kimberly’s unique circumstances with the normal thoughts and difficulties of becoming a teenager. It’s so realistic and nuanced, and Kimberly will capture the reader’s heart from beginning to end.
The difficulties Kimberly and her mother must face are heartbreaking, and it brings into sharp focus how privileged so many of us are. Kimberly doesn’t have any opportunities handed to her; she must make her own way. But the genius of the novel is how inspirational it is. While Kimberly faces some very difficult issues, this book never feels like it contains too much sorrow because it has one very bright spot: Kimberly herself. Watching her succeed, against all odds, is so heartwarming and wonderful that it makes the book a complete joy to read.
I can’t say enough great things about Girl in Translation. It’s such a captivating book, readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Kimberly’s future. Her successes will make them feel triumphant, while her mistakes will have readers trying to reach into the pages, wanting to give her some comfort. Kwok’s prose is expertly written; I have trouble believing this is a debut novel because it’s so well-crafted. I enjoyed this novel from beginning to end and look forward to seeing what Kwok does next.