Girl in Translation: I Wanted the Story to Keep Going

BlogHer Review

About a month ago I was approached by Blogher to read a book and review it right here on my blog for their new book club. I jumped at the chance because I love to read and I actually have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature. This was totally in my “wheel house”. When I was growing up I loved writing book reports. It was so much fun to read a book highlighting key points and jotting down my thoughts and feelings again. However, it was a little intimidating knowing that so many people would be reading my review.

Girl in Translation is the debut novel of Jean Kwok. It’s about a young girl and her mother that emigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York. They were able to do so with the help of an aunt, which they were forever indebted to (financially and otherwise). They were put up in a tiny apartment in the slums of Brooklyn. Kwok’s descriptions of the apartment made me feel like I was right there with the main character, Kimberly. “I was standing in the kitchen. The wind whistled through the two windows on the wall to the right of me, and I wondered why Ma had opened them. Then I saw that they were still closed.”

Since I didn’t pick this book out for myself, I didn’t realize it was fiction. From the very first paragraph to about the middle of the book I assumed it was based on the author’s life (autobiographical). I actually noticed that the author’s name (Jean Kwok) didn’t match the character’s name in the book (Kimberly). Since I’ve done a little more research about the author, I discovered that there are a lot of similarities between Jean Kwok and Kimberly. I found it quite amazing how Kwok was able to write so eloquently about not having a father when she in fact did have a father in her real life. To me, that is a remarkable trait in an author. She also writes about being an only child taking on all the day to day responsibly that required the use of English since her mother didn’t speak practically a word of English. In real life she had a large family to soften this burden a bit. She was able to get in the head of Kimberly and really identify with how she would feel.

I will say that there were a few parts of the book that I had questions about. Throughout the entire book I wondered what time period the book takes place in. I looked for pop culture references and really wasn’t able to find any. The closest thing I found was “It was difficult for anyone to escape from Hong Kong before its scheduled return from British to Communist Chinese rule in 1997.” So, the only thing that tells me is that it was before 1997. In the long run, it wasn’t necessary to the plot, but it was just something I wondered about.

The author never really delved into why they left Hong Kong in the first place. Kimberly relays all the wonderful memories and good times she had in Hong Kong. I wondered throughout the book why they would ever want to trade in their comfortable (middle class) life in Hong Kong to live in the slums of Brooklyn and work in a sweat shop. I’m sure there is a great reason for this, and I would know what it was if I would have paid attention in my high school social studies class. But for that reason, I really think it would have been beneficial if the author included a paragraph or two describing what was going on in Hong Kong at the time they immigrated.

Based on the back cover of the book, I thought this book would be an inspiring book about hard work and determination, about overcoming any obstacles that may be in your way. Instead this is more of a coming of age book with bits of facts about immigration, sweat shops, and Chinatown thrown in. It ends up being a love story and you’ll just have to read it to find out how that ends (or doesn’t end).

I really did enjoy reading this book. I pretty much have two requirements for a good book. One, is that it is easy to read, and by that I mean that it is written in a way that it is not “work” to read. The story has a natural progression that keeps the reader interested and wanting to read more. In the epilogue, the author jumps forward 12 years to what I assume is present day. It took me quite a few days to get through that small part in the book (reading in spurts when I had an extra few minutes), and I realized it was not because it was boring, but because I didn’t want to story to end. That is my second requirement for a good book, you want the story to keep going.

This was a very well written book and I even learned a bit about the Chinese culture. I’m not sure if this is a book I would have read on my own if it wasn’t for the Blogher Book Club, but it turned out to be a good read and if Jean Kwok writes another book, I’m sure I’ll be reading it.

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