Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok seems to be one of the hot novels of the summer, and I was lucky to score a copy from Riverhead as part of the Silicon Valley Moms June Book Club. (Hi FTC!)
Girl in Translation is about Kimberly Chang, a girl who immigrates with her mother to New York from Hong Kong when she is 11 years old. They are penniless upon arrival, and in fact indebted to Kimberly's Aunt Paula, who paid their way to the U.S. and set them up in a roach- and rat-infested apartment in a bad neighborhood. They immediately begin work "finishing" clothes in one of Paula's sweatshops, where Kimberly spends her afternoons after bewildering days in a Brooklyn public school.
Kimberly is a very good student, which school administrators quickly recognize, and she wins a full scholarship to an elite private school in Brooklyn. Girl in Translation is about Kimberly's double life – that of a destitute yet brilliant and hardworking immigrant daughter trying to support her mother and improve their circumstances, and at the same time a teenager grappling with social acceptance, romance, friendship, and the trappings of privilege that surround her.
Girl in Translation is an engrossing and satisfying story. Kwok's narration is sparse and almost cold at times, which I suspect is due to her use of language to depict Kimberly's level of comprehension and her own mastery of English. The opening chapters are a bit choppy, just as Kimberly's own diction would have been, and as the book wears on, the descriptions get more robust and the conveying of emotion more sophisticated.
There are many memorable (and at times heartbreaking) scenes in the book, such as the description of the apartment she shared with her mother; her mother's many sacrifices, both material and emotional; and their mistreatment at the hands of her aunt. There is also a love story throughout the book which ultimately is a very sad one. I found the last chapter a bit surprising, and I must confess that it shook my faith in Kimberly's integrity as a character. I'd love to know more about how Kwok arrived at the ending that she did. (I don't feel that I can go into more detail here without spoiling the book for those who haven't read it.)
I highly recommend the Q&A about Girl in Translation on the Penguin website (thanks to Booking Mama for sending me there) and there is a lot more about Jean Kwok on her own website. It was very interesting to read about the parallels between Kimberly's life and the author's own immigrant experiences. I'd love to know even more.
This is an eye-opening book and a very worthwhile read.