Monday, May 3, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok


I recently received an email from Riverhead Books asking if I would like a free “advance” copy of Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation. They probably already knew this was a pretty safe investment, and that I would like and recommend the book on this blog, and they were right.

It is a simple story about a complicated situation. Simple because it is a quick read told in the minimalist style of Cormac McCarthy, complicated in the covertly, thought-provoking style of Ian McEwan. I could say that Girl in Translation is a well-told story about a young Chinese girl and her mother coming to America, living in a horrible condemned, heatless building full of roaches and rats, toiling for 15+ hours a day for pennies, finding and losing love, and eventually achieving the American dream, but my take on this book goes deeper than that.

First, I was reminded of the enormous cultural crevasse between China and America - traditions, family protocols, manners and language, and the universality of other things - fear, ambition, loss and love. This was reflected not only in the very different behaviors but also in the verbal perspective. Click on Read More Below.

I found the comparative “translations” that Kwok gave charming and interesting. First, there was the difference between what people said to the limited-English proficient main character Ah-Kim (Kimberly), and what she actually heard. For example, when the Principal of a prep school said to her, “Harrison is one of the best college prepator schools like Exit and Sand Paul, only with the advantage that you don’t need to bord here. We are actually a boring school without the boring.” Sometimes the breakdowns in communication were funny, sometimes heartbreaking.

Also, the Chinese sayings, translated by Kimberly in the book, were fascinating, i.e., “You can release your heart,” meaning you don’t have to worry, “You are serving us golden dragon on a platter,” describing a well-prepared meal, “You give us so much face,” in recognizing generosity.

Girl in Translation is really just another coming of age story, but the context in which it is told makes it exceptional. There’s also a nice twist at the end that is satisfying. If Jean Kwok can write beyond the reflection of her own history (she, like her character Kimberly immigrated from China to Manhattan), we’re in store for some more wonderful stories!

1 comment:

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