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Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

I was born with a talent. Not for dance, or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly, and without too much effort. It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit it. This is not to say that education was always easy for me. When Ma and I moved to the U.S., I spoke only a few words of English, and for a very long time, I struggled.

When eleven year old Kimberley Chang and her mother arrive in New York from Hong Kong, thanks to her Aunt Paula, who has arranged everything. At first staying with Aunt Paula, Kimberley thinks it could be wonderful, but then when they are shown to the derelict building where they would be renting, and start work in the factory sweatshop that Uncle Bob manages, it becomes painfully clear that there is a huge debt to be paid for this not so sisterly act of getting them to the USA.

Their apartment hovel is roach-ridden and rodent-infested. It has broken windows and no heating apart from a cooker, there is just one nasty old mattress between them and they will suffer during the freezing New York winter.

Meanwhile, Kimberley starts school.  She can barely speak a word of English, and constantly misunderstands what is said to her.  This is frustrating, as she is a very capable student, and doubly frustrating as the local children don’t have her work ethic.  Then after school she has to work at the factory until late assisting her mother in bagging up skirts for just two cents an item.  No wonder Kimberley comes to measure the cost of things in skirts.  She makes a friend at school, but of course cannot invite her home – she can’t let Annette see the squalor they live in, or know that she’s an underage factory worker either.

Written from Kimberley’s point of view, this was a fascinating tale of what it’s like to be a foreigner living and working in a strange new country.  It’s all about status for Auntie Paula, Ma’s older sister – the conditions she enforces on Kimberley and her Ma are awful – at home and work, and it’s horrid to see their blood relations take advantage of them in this way. Luckily Kimberley’s talent for school reasserts itself, and with her increasing confidence in English, you feel sure that she’ll do alright in the end.  But her later high school years are not without heartache either.

I met Jean at Penguin’s bookblogger’s event back in March, where she told us, that although this book is pure fiction, she did share similar experiences to Kimberley’s when her family first arrived in the USA when she was five.  Like Kimberley, her intellect helped to get her out of those hard times.

You couldn’t help but get involved in Kimberley’s tale; the sweatshop scenes came to life in vivid detail in particular.  Eventually Kimberley begins to assimilate into her classmate’s culture, in a way her mother cannot and there are some bittersweet moments, when she has to lie to go out with friends instead of working in the factory.  But Kimberley is a good girl, and the author never forgets to tell us about her top drawer grades – a little too often perhaps, she doesn’t always have to work very hard to get them.

All in all, this was a sympathetic and fascinating tale, well told, and I enjoyed it very much. (7.5/10)

Thank you to Penguin for supplying my copy. To buy your own from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.

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