Based in part upon her own life experiences, author Jean Kwok has hit the mark in her debut novel, Girl in Translation. Much like her character, Kwok also emigrated from Hong Kong and starting working in a Chinese sweatshop at a young age. She and her family also lived in a roach and rat-infested apartment — without heat! Still, this story is not so much about deprivation, but more of a story about hope and about overcoming adversity — in short, it’s today’s version of the American dream.
Ah-Kim Chang (translated to Kimberly once they moved to New York) had always excelled in school. After her father died, she and her mother are indebted to Aunt Paula for financing their trip to America, so they both begin working long hours in a Chinatown clothing factory for much less than minimum wage. On top of this, they live in a condemned apartment (think roaches, no heat, and garbage bags covering the window) and Kimberly must also attend school, where language and cultural differences abound. As she begins to master English, she again begins to show academic promise, eventually earning admission to an elite private high school, and thereby paving the way for her ticket out of the slums.
The author sometimes spells out conversations phonetically — an effective technique –especially since she wanted the English-speaking reader to understand life on the “other side of the language barrier.” She also incorporates a few surprising plot twists at the end, which helps makes the story even more personable and endearing. Highly recommended.