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Review: Girl in Translation (Jean Kwok)

Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Genre: Adult fiction
Pages: 293
Rating: 5 out of 5
Challenges: PoC, Reading from my Shelves
FTC Disclosure: I think I received this book as a gift, but I may have bought it myself
Summary (from the back of the book): When eleven-year-old Kimberly CHang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to America, they speak little English and own nothing but debt. They arrive in New OYork hopeful for a better life, but find instead a squalid Brooklyn apartment lacking heat and real furniture, and a life of backbreaking labor in a Chinatown sweatshop. Unable to accept this as her future, Kim decides to use her "talent for school" to earn a place for herself and her mother in their adopted country. Disguising the most difficult truths of her life--her staggering poverty, the weight of her family's expectations, and the true depths of her culture confusion--she embarks on a double life: an exceptional student by day, and a sweatshop worker by evening and weekend. In time, Kim learns to translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the two worlds she straddles.

For all her adult pressures, though, she is still a girl--vulnerable to the same piercing envy and anxiety, and most of all, first love. As her hard-won future is threatened by her feelings for a kind boy in the factory who shares none of her talent or ambition, we feel both the ache of her love for him and the fear that she will love everything for which she has fought so hard.

Review: When I stay up past my bedtime to finish a book I know it's a "5". Why did I let this book sit on my shelf for so long before I read it? That was a silly thing to do!

Kwok did a wonderful job of creating characters that I really cared about, empathized with, and wanted to fight for. She made me really understand what the immigrant experience is like when there is no money, huge debt, and a complete non-understanding of the American culture. Coming to this country in debt to relatives, paying interest, and being at their mercy for housing was so intense for Kimberly and her mother, especially since they had a good life in Hong Kong. I can see how her mother never learned English since she spent all day in the sweatshop doing piece work.

I thought Kimberly, the main character, was so good. She was just the right mix of a bright student, a good daughter, and a conscientious caretaker for her mother. As the one who learned English she is the one who had to take care of things from a very young age. And her mother clinging to the Chinese ways and not understanding the American system is spot on. I see this in my Latino students all the time. The supporting characters were also well done. They helped to bring out important issues and characteristics in Kimberly.

While this is a tough story, it is also one of hope because Kimberly's smarts are recognized in her first year in the US. The ending is a little bit obvious, but I felt okay about that because the story had led up to it well.
Geography Connection:

(photo credit for right photo)
Click to see my updated Google Map. Darn it, another book set in New York City (Brooklyn to be precise). But, this setting is definitely different from the other NYC books since the main character lives in the projects, works in a sweatshop, and attends a fancy school.


JoV said...

A positive endorsement from yourself makes me want to read this book even more. I remember I read "The Opposite of Fate" by Amy Tan and she remembered the days when she had to help her mother talked through the phones, request to fill up the phones and took up household responsibility and be in-charge from a very young age. Every immigrant experience is difficult. I wouldn't want to change anything that I have experience. Being in a strange surrounding only makes my self awareness more acute and it is what makes me human.

Thanks for the review. :)

Athira said...

This one is on my wishlist! Books set in the Orient work so well for me, so I can't wait to read this. I love it when books make you stay up late!

Rummanah Aasi said...

I really enjoyed reading this book last year. The ending had me teary eyed and shocked. I totally didn't see that happening. Did you?

Helen's Book Blog said...

JoV--The immigrant experience, wherever it takes place, is so interesting. As a first generation American I definitely had to navigate "strange" events (prom, college applications, athletic teams) and we had English as our first language! I cannot imagine doing it and learning the language at the same time

Aths--I also love that feeling of staying up late to finish a book because it is just SO GOOD!

Rummanah--I didn't see the ending coming either and I thought it totally fit with the main character's personality

mpartyka said...

This book is up my alley - and with 5/5 stars I must read it!

Thanks for a great review.

Beth(bookaholicmom) said...

I loved this book as well. I didn't see the ending coming either. I love when a book keeps me up at night! Great review!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Mari--I really enjoyed this one, I hope you do too!

Beth--So glad you also liked it. Even though I am tired the next day it is fun to stay up late reading!

Chelle said...

I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this or not but now I'm putting it on my TBR list! It sounds really good. Thanks for the review!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Chelle--Oh, definitely read this book, it's so interesting and well done