Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
2010 Riverhead Books
Penguin USA Audio, Unabridged
Read by Grayce Wey
Finished on 7/27/11
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
FTC Disclosure: ARC from Shelf Awareness
What is it like to be surrounded every day by a language and culture you only half understand? How would it change your life?
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, they speak no English and own nothing but debt. Kimberly’s talent for school does not pay the bills, and she quickly begins a double life, carefully hidden from the outside world: an exceptional student by day, she is a Chinatown sweatshop worker by evening and weekend. Disguising the most difficult truths of her life—her staggering poverty, the weight of her family’s expectations, her love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition—Kimberly learns to translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the two worlds she straddles.
Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, Girl in Translation is an inspiring debut about a young immigrant in America, a smart girl balancing school-work and factory labor, custom and desire, a girl who is forced at a young age to take responsibility for her family’s future, with decisions that she may later regret. Through Kimberly, we feel the shock of a new world and the everyday struggles and sacrifices of recent immigrants—and through her, we learn to understand how these experiences can ultimately shape a life and the choices one makes.
Like Kimberly Chang, author Jean Kwok emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, and she brings to the page the story of countless others who have been caught among the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires. Written in an unforgettable voice that dramatizes the tensions of a girl growing up between two worlds, Girl in Translation is a story of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.
It’s been over a month since I finished listening to this coming-of-age story, but as with most of the audio books I’ve listened to this year, the images of the story are embedded in my mind's-eye. I was very impressed with the reader and often had to remind myself that I was listening to a novel—not a memoir. Apparently I’m not the only one who thought this book felt autobiographical:
Jean Kwok states on her website, "Although Girl in Translation is a work of fiction and not a memoir, the world in which it takes place is real." Despite those words, the book reads like a memoir - it truly does. (Joy, of Thoughts of Joy)
Publishers Weekly was just as impressed with Grayce Wey’s reading as I was:
This audiobook is the perfect match of narrator and material. Grayce Wey's performance as immigrant Kimberly Chang feels absolutely authentic. As the adult Kimberly looking back at her life, Wey has just a touch of a Chinese accent (appropriate for a character who's lived in America for two decades), and her tone conveys bittersweet regret even while knowing she made the right choice. But when speaking as the younger, newly arrived Kimberly, Wey's Chinese accent is much heavier, and we can hear Kimberly's confusion, anxiety, and struggle to adjust to this new culture. Wey perfectly evokes Kimberly's growing assertiveness and determination, her teenage longing, joy, and pain when falling in love for the first time, and her conflicted feelings when making difficult decisions about her path in life. A moving and memorable listen.
I received an ARC of Girl in Translation from Shelf Awareness, but wound up listening to the audio version instead. I enjoyed this inspiring novel so much (and was especially satisfied with the ending) that I think I’ll hang on to the beautiful hard copy for future reading. It’s been several years since I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I found myself comparing Kwok’s Kimberly to Smith’s Francie. These two books would be an excellent choice for a comparison-contrast assignment for a high school literature course.
Jean Kwok is an author I’ll be watching for!
Go here to watch a brief video of the author as she describes her debut novel.