Meg's Reviews > Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
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's review
Mar 26, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: sent-for-review, read-in-2011, literary-fiction
Read from July 09 to 13, 2011

Jean Kwok’s Girl In Translation is a tender, heart wrenching and exquisitely detailed look at the immigrant experience for two Chinese women in the 1980s. Though Kim begins the novel as a preteen, we pass through years of the Changs’ life as they struggle with family dramas, prejudice and love.

Kim is an incredibly likable narrator — someone I cared for from the beginning. Her meddle is tested time and again, and I was shocked at how resilient she was. Despite setbacks and fear, she didn’t let teachers or students keep her from school. Though her English was poor in the beginning, Kim realizes she can only unlock her prison cell of a sub par education, terrible living conditions and loneliness by learning English. So she throws herself completely into the attempt and becomes her mother’s translator, too.

What struck me most about Kim was the seamless way in which she seems to become her mother’s caretaker. As Ma is exhausted from the factory work that barely supports them, Kim steps in to handle large projects. She becomes adept at bagging the garments on which her mother works, finding ways to create shortcuts and complete the tasks quickly. As Ma struggles to communicate in New York, her daughter handles tax bills, forms, school paperwork. She learns to sign her mother’s name before she can ever sign her own.

But the pressure gets to our heroine sometimes, of course, though it never breaks her. Kim’s successes felt like my successes, and I burst into tears after a breakthrough at school elevates her beyond her meager circumstances. Though hard to read at points, Kwok handles the Changs’ living situation realistically while still saving us the gruesome details lurking in the corners. Any mention of a rat scurrying in a darkened room is enough to get me shivering, but these were things that I felt I needed to know.

The story isn't without love, too -- I fell completely for Matt, the hardworking teen son of a fellow factory worker. His bond with Kim only strengthens as they age and assume more responsibilities from their mothers, and my heart broke as Matt got close before pulling away from our narrator. I loved him as Kim loved him: completely and without judgment. No matter what, he was always No. 1 in her heart.

There wasn’t much to dislike about this book, which kept me reading at all hours. Kwok’s writing is subtle but beautiful, and it completely drew me into the Changs’ world. There were so many times that my heart hurt as the women faced dangerous or scary situations, armed only with their verve; so many things that could have wrecked them didn’t, and I marveled at that. By the final chapter, it felt like an epic saga to arrive where we did. And though Kim’s happy ending wasn’t what I expected, I still felt great peace.

Readers of literary fiction, contemporary fiction and immigrant stories will find much to love in the beautiful Girl In Translation, published in 2009 and still receiving accolades. Kimberly isn’t a character I’ll soon forget, and certain passages will stay with me for a long while.

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07/11/2011 page 127
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