Jean Kwok's new novel from Riverhead Press, Girl in Translation, tells the story of an immigrant mother and daughter struggling to survive in the harsh realities of New York. They come to America seeking a better life under the care of a relative, Aunt Paula, who sets them up with an apartment of questionable legal status, no heat and a full supply of cockroaches. With an entirely illegal pay-per-piece factory job and limited knowledge of English, 10-year old Kimberly and her mother struggle to make the best of a terrible situation, one foot mired in traditional Chinese family values and the other struggling to keep pace with the harsh, fast-paced reality of poverty.
Girl in Translation is an incredibly fitting title for this somewhat traditional coming-of-age immigrant tale. As Kimberly grows older, she grapples with love and romance in the face of her own aspirations and her desire to make a better life for both herself and her mother. Refusing to submit to the circle of factory life and the poverty to which she has begun to grow accustomed, she draws on her "talent for school" to go further than any thought possible, amazing and often frustrating her teachers, Aunt Paula, and so on.
Kwok's strength as a writer shines through in her presentation of language, whether it be Kimberly's often amusing misunderstandings of English words or Kwok's careful definition of odd Chinese phrases (presented in English, but understood to be communicated in Cantonese). "Small-hearted" translates to humble, "eyes red" is jealousy, and so on. In this careful combination, Kwok presents a true girl in translation, steadily improving her grasp of the English language, and all of its odd slangs and sayings while simultaneously translating her Cantonese language into contemporary English. This clever use of language brings forth the idiomatic nature of both languages that any lover of language and translation is sure to enjoy.
Bottom line: As Kimberly and her mother fight to get out from under the grasp of their jealous and somewhat despotic relative, Aunt Paula, readers are taken along on Kimberly's journey of growth and discovery. Through the use of subtle and clever language translations, Kwok brings to life the difficulties of reconciling one's heritage with modern American life; through stark descriptions of the poverty of the Chang family, Kwok reveals the startling realities of meager living. The novel moves somewhat slowly through the beginning, but Kwok really finds her feet on the ground by the last few chapters, giving readers a fascinating and heartbreaking tale of immigration, poverty, aspirations, friendship, love and sacrifice. Definitely recommend.
Sound like something you'd like to read? Don't want to wait until it comes out in May? Stay tuned for a giveaway...
Disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher.