Uplifting and Heartbreaking: Girl in Translation

BlogHer Review

I can’t decide if Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is heartbreaking or uplifting. It kills me that immigrants to this country are living in condemned, unheated, infested buildings, and working illegally in dangerous sweatshops for pennies per piece. At the same time, though, it gives me such hope that a girl can lift herself out of those sorts of conditions to become a heart surgeon or a bestselling author.

You see, Jean Kwok lived a life very similar to the main character Kimberly’s life. They both immigrated from Hong Kong. They both worked in sweat shops. They both lived in unheated, infested buildings. They both went to Ivy League schools on scholarships. While she insists that the novel is a work of fiction, there are enough elements from her own life to make the story vivid and three dimensional.

I loved the way that Kwok used phonetic spellings to take the reader inside Kimberly’s mind. For example, when Kim is speaking with her elementary school principal about scholarships, Mrs. LaGuardia says, “The truth is, Kimberly, I’m worried about what might happen to you if you get thrown into a school without the faciltees to help you nur chore your abilities. Off the record, I think you should consider a private school. Most of our students wouldn’t have a really stick chance of getting in or being able to pay for it, but you might.”

A device like this, which helps the reader empathize with the confusion that Kim must have felt (especially when dealing with New Yawk accents!) could easily have been overused, but Kwok peppered her novel with just enough of these instances to give the reader a glimpse into the isolation of a non-native English speaking child in New York public schools, without it becoming gimmicky or irritating.

Aside from the use of language, Kimberly’s was simply a really good story. The characters in Girl In Translation are interesting and three dimensional. The plot moves quickly, but with enough detail to allow the reader to become absorbed. There are twists of fate and circumstance that bring people together and keep them apart. Much of Kimberly’s story is a human story, one that anyone can relate to regardless of their nationality or their socio-economic status. It’s a story of having to give up something important to reach other goals. It’s a story of wondering what was waiting down the path that you didn’t choose. Haven’t we all wondered what might have been?

Like most great stories, Girl In Translation is both uplifting and heartbreaking. I enjoyed it tremendously.

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