Monday, June 7, 2010
Girl In Translation, Me In Fixation
First novels, coming of age novels and the immigrant experience novels are all two a penny and when all three types are blended into one novel it's..... Well it's still nothing new. Precisely because these novels are so prevalent I think that they more than any other kind of fiction they demand good writing to succeed and stand out. They can have great characters, interesting plot lines, hell they can even have ponies but without strong writing behind it all they turn into yet another of more of the same.
So how thrilled am I that Girl in Translation defies the odds and is that wonderful, well written combination of first novel, coming of age story and immigrant experience story? Totally thrilled, my friend.
Eleven year old Kimberly and her Mother are relieved to be able to immigrate from the about to be in Chinese hands Hong Kong to Brooklyn. They have been promised an Eden. Aunt Paula has a job waiting for Kimberly's Mother and a place for them both to live. When they arrive both promises come true but only up to a point. The job is grueling, poverty level sweatshop work and the apartment is so roach infested that the bugs carpet the place. In addition to this squalor Kimberly's lack of English causes her to struggle in school and her nights and weekends are spent working at the sweatshop with her Mother. This young family's circumstances and their determination to overcome them make a powerful story, but it's the humanity the author details in the mother-daughter relationship and in the loneliness and fears of the outsider that raises Girl above similar novels.
Reading the short author bio on the book it's easy to see this novel as autobiographical. Jean Kwok and her family immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was a girl. Whether you write from experience or research good writing is good writing and this is good writing. Kwok's quiet but insistent style brings a matter of fact-ness to the book that makes the story even more compelling and the hardships more painful. Girl in Translation was a transporting read. I was invested in the character's lives and have continued to think about them. I am looking forward to Kwok's next book.