Monday, June 28, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation is a story about a young Chinese girl and her mother who come to the United States in the hope of making a better life for themselves. Eleven year old Kimberly Chang and her mother are brought to American by Kimberly's Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob. Although promised to be taken care of, they are taken advantage of and abused by Paula who is jealous and angry at her younger sister, Kimberly's mother. They are given an apartment in a vermin-filled, abandoned building without heat. Kimberly and her mother are forced to work in Aunt Paula's Chinatown garment factory in order to pay off their debt to her for the cost of their airfare and Ma's medical treatment.

Although Kimberly's Ma is resigned to her fate of grinding poverty and hardship, Kimberly recognizes that she has it within herself to better her life. She knows she was a top student in China and that this will be the key to a new life in America. But Kimberly soon finds herself leading a double life: one that hides the terrible hardship of their lives while trying to appear as normal as possible at school. She is a brilliant student during the school day but hides the fact that after school she works long hours in a sweatshop and lives in terrible poverty without proper clothing or food. Kimberly also has difficulty in adapting to a culture she doesn't understand. In order to hide her life from her peers, she allows no one to get close to her. The only exception is Annette who befriends her and throughout middle and high school respects Kimberly's need for distance. In the end, as the girls mature, Annette proves to be a true friend to Kimberly.

Like all young girls her age though, Kimberly must deal with the pressures of growing up. From the first time she works in the garment factory, Kimberly likes Matt Wu, a young sweatshop worker who is her age. But Matt is different from Kimberly. He is not as ambitious and he is content with what he has in life. Their friendship gradually develops into complicated love at a time when they are starting to drift apart. Matt becomes involved with another Chinese immigrant whose views on life are more similar to his. Kimberly struggles to cope with her feelings of a first love tainted by jealousy. When something very unplanned happens between Kimberly and Matt, something that threatens to destroy her chances to achieve her dreams, she must make a difficult choice. This choice will affect both her and Matt forever.

This novel is wonderful. Kimberly is a realistic character and her plight is so desperate that it is impossible not to develop a deep sympathy for her. As a reader, we see her grow from a frightened, disoriented 11 year old to a responsible, strong teen who is capable of making good decisions. Along the way she struggles with her developing love for Matt and his attraction to another girl, Vivian who is more suited to him. Kimberly must also navigate the social minefield of high school as well as her aunt's growing jealousy of Kimberly's academic achievements.

The jacket cover for Girl in Translation states "In time, Kim learns to tanslate not just her language but herself back and forth between the two worlds she straddles." And that she does in a most remarkable way.

I highly recommend this book and can't wait to read Jean Kwok's next offering. She is a fresh new YA author who holds great promise.

Book Details:
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Riverhead Books (Penguin) 2010
293 pp.

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