Monday 3 October 2011

Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok

Kimberly Chang and her mother move to New York from Hong Kong when Kim is only eleven.  Kept in debt by an aunt who can't forget the price she paid to get them there, Kim and her Mum live in a roach infested apartment with no windowpanes or heating.  Every free moment is taken up with illegal work in a sweatshop.  And even school, the one thing Kim has always been good at, offers no comfort as Kim understands little English.

This is definitely not a happy book.  Kim and her Mum go through many hardships, especially during the winter months when they must keep their oven on and the door constantly open to stop their floor from freezing over.  They have to raid rubbish bins to find fabric to keep them warm.  It's a lonely life as even when Kim becomes more fluent in English, she feels cut off from all of those around her.  But Kwok manages to keep the book from being a depressing read by inserting moments of humour, mainly through the phoneticised spellings of English words.  When she meets her new teacher for the first time, he says "Our new student, eye-pre-zoom."  This really takes the reader into Kim's head and provides much needed light heartedness.

The book is also kept from being too melancholy by Kim's ambition and determination.  You always feel that she will succeed and are not surprised when she does.  The contrast between the life she lives at home and at the factory compared the world of the elite prep school she gains a scholarship to makes for interesting reading.  Kim literally lives a double life, and has many secrets out of necessity, secrets that her friends from both parts of her life would never understand.  And because of this, she doesn't really fit anywhere.

I felt as though the real talent in Kwok's novel was how she took me right into the head of Kim, and in this way Girl In Translation reminded me of Pigeon English or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The writing was bare but somehow also descriptive and captured the immigrant experience wonderfully.  You end up admiring Kim for her bravery, or at least her sheer determination.

Up until the last chapter and the epilogue, this was hands down one of the best books I've read all year.  But unfortunately I felt like the epilogue was unnecessary and some of the plot developments introduced too quickly and without any real reason.  I understand that Kwok was trying to make the point that for Kim, happiness would always come with cost, whatever her choices, but I think the novel would have been better left at one of the turning points in her life.

Verdict: Fascinating insight into the mind of a young immigrant in America.
Source: Library
Published: 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5


  1. I've picked up this book the last few times I've been in bookstores, but I haven't purchased it yet. I think I'll have to read it now. Thank you for the recommendation!

    Most of my students are recent immigrants to Hong Kong from Mainland China. It will be very interesting to read about an HK immigrant in the US.

  2. Sounds like a very thought-provoking story - I haven't considered this before, but I might have to check this one out!

  3. sounds like a really interesting read - the dual identity angle sounds especially intriguing. glad to learn of this one.

  4. Shannon, sounds like you'll have a different perspective on it to me. In the book, Kim and her family leave Hong Kong just before it is returned to mainland China.

    Natalie - It was thought provoking, for me especially on the issue of poverty in modern society.

    Bookspersonally - Yes, the dual identity angle was interesting, especially as it forced a wedge between Kim and her Mum.

  5. Great review Sam, I really liked the sound of this book until the part about the epilogue. Not sure I would be able to deal with it so probably won't go on my TBR. Appreciate the honest review :-)

  6. This sounds like a worthwhile book. I'll have to add it to my list. I've been reading a lot of downbeat books lately though, so I'm going to read some more happy books first. I need a break.

  7. Willa, I still think it's worth a read, if only for the beginning parts.

    Susan, I know what you mean! Sometimes downbeat books can get a bit much.

  8. Sam - just to let you know my comment is not
    showing up for some reason. I've waited a day to see if it shows up, but no joy. Hope you get this message this time!

  9. Well, my comment has just get posted to-day so I will continue to post my comments.
    Thanks for the review on this book as I was looking at it in a bookshop recently, but didn't buy it. Maybe I will get it out of the library sometime.

  10. Linda, sorry about that issue with comments, I don't know what was causing it! Glad that it sorted itself out in the end :)