Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok
Penguin (Fig Tree); €13.50

EVERY decade or so a book comes along to move the hearts of a generation. Last decade, that book was The Kite Runner. The same American publishers have chosen Girl in Translation, partly based on the author’s own experiences, as their number one choice for 2010.

Kimberly Chang has always dreamed of seeing New York, ‘Min-hat-on’, the skyscrapers and, most of all, the Liberty goddess. But when she and her mother get the opportunity to leave Hong Kong to make their lives in the US, the reality she discovers is shockingly different.

Her aunt, married to a property tycoon who runs sweatshops in Chinatown, puts them into a vermin-infested apartment in a condemned building where the broken windows are patched up with bin liners and the oven is their only source of heat .

As Kimberly’s mother owes her sister and brother-in-law a fortune for flight tickets and medical bills, the future looks bleak. She is bound to work for them, for two cents per garment, with her daughter helping her after school. Here, Kimberly meets Matt, a boy who has had to drop out of school to work for his family.

But 11-year-old Kimberly is intellectually gifted and in spite of her almost total lack of English, she gradually makes headway (learning the dictionary by heart). She also protects her illiterate mother who speaks no English and is constantly exploited.

It is her spirit and wit that helps Kimberly tackle the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead. Protective of her mother, when difficult decisions have to be made, she makes them alone.

In this evocative début about a singular bond between mother and daughter, and the power of education to transform lives, Kwok’s quiet narrative voice steals up on you and captures your heart.

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