Book Review: Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation, reminds readers of the hardships immigrants can face both financially and culturally when trying to adapt to a new country. Kwok’s semi-autobiographical story details the story of Kimberly Chang, a young girl from Hong Kong who moves with her mother to Brooklyn with an infantile grasp of English and little-to-no money. As the story progresses, Kim learns she needs to lead a double life or face the consequences from her peers. At night, she helps her mother earn her keep as a Chinatown factory worker, barely making enough to live in their roach- and rat-infested apartment, but by day she is her prestigious private school’s most prized student. She prays that by excelling at her one talent, school, she will be able to save her mother and her future children from a lifetime of sweatshop work. Despite these hardships, Kim still succumbs to human emotion and falls in love.

Told in first person, Kwok is effectively able to portray how everyday occurences, such as what to call her teacher or how to behave when going to a friend’s house for the first time, might appear puzzling and stressful to a young immigrant who constantly strives to grasp the etiquette needed to fit in with the rest of her classmates. Kwok conveys the struggle of not being able to converse easily in English by having the characters speak in phonetic phrases like “eye-prezoom” (I presume) and “exsu” (excuse).

Kwok’s Girl in Translation will mesmerize readers with its vivid storytelling and leave them with the universal notion that sometimes there isn’t a black and white answer to life’s decisions. As Kim learns throughout the book, every choice, whether it be immigrating to a new country or choosing which boy to go steady with, can bring both unfathomable loss and profound joy.

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