Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love
“I was born with a talent. Not for dance or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort” (Kwok, 1). These are the opening lines from Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, a coming of age story about a Chinese immigrant.
Kimberly Chang moved to New York City with her mother after her father died and her mother survived a bout of tuberculosis. Indebted to her aunt, Kimberly and her mom must work for pennies in a clothing factory and live in a cockroach-infested apartment. Kwok’s description of this family’s experience with poverty is visceral and edgy. Life is very difficult for Kimberly and her mother and Kimberly looks to school as her ticket out of poverty. She excels in school and promises to take care of her mother by going to college and taking her along, escaping the Brooklyn slums.
Several complications lie in Kimberly’s way. Her aunt is jealous and spiteful and tries to block Kimberly’s success by making her and her mother work long hours at the factory for very little pay under the table. Kimberly is also distracted by Matt, a boy her age working in the factory with her. Kimberly must balance long hours at school doing homework in a language she is unfamiliar with, coping with social norms she is unaccustomed to and then after school illegally putting in long hours at the factory. Her strength and determination are admirable.
Kwok is highly creative in how she plays with language throughout the novel. She uses a particular trick (I won’t give it away) to throw us into the world of someone new to the English language. Readers sometimes feel just as lost as Kimberly does as she tries to navigate life in a new country. Beautifully written with a surprising twist at the end, Girl in Translation is one of the best books I’ve read this summer.
4 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: NONE (borrowed from a friend).