Jean Kwok literally brings her characters to life in her debut novel Girl in Translation (Riverhead Books, 2010). The book traces the life journey of a Chinese girl Kim who moves along with her mother from Hong Kong to New York as an immigrant and takes on the challenges of poverty, underpaid labor, and cultural adjustments – her strength being the “talent of learning”.
Of the challenges Kim faces as a young Chinese immigrant in her new place, she specifically struggles with language. To her, learning English is at once the problem and the solution to her difficult situation. Given her gift of learning, Kim gradually takes control of her life and by the time she steps into adulthood, she has achieved what would make her and her mother proud. A tale of challenges and the courage to face them with patience, this novel has immense inspirational and motivational value, particularly for the newly immigrated people who have to grapple with issues of culture and identity in a foreign country.
Kwok’s voice is compelling, her talent of expressing character situations extraordinary. Far from trying to raise her protagonist to an inflated model of courage, the author lets Kim’s character come of age realistically, showing various shades of her person – the fear, the innocence, and the spirit driving her forward. The author’s approach is direct, her characterization anything but lofty so that the reader gets a sense of immediacy about the characters and their situations. By the end of the novel, the reader is most likely to be already in love with it.
Girl in Translation is one of the more refined works of contemporary fiction in English language. Whether immigrants or natives, this book makes an enjoyable and moving read of solid literary merit for all readers.