It’s no easy trick to age a character 20 years in 300 pages and never once let the narrative voice falter or sound jarring. But Girl in Translation is no ordinary coming-of-age novel. Or rather, it is ordinary, in the sense of being universal, even though the story’s primary setting will strike most readers as exotic and unfamiliar.
Kimberly Chang is an 11-year-old who has just come to America with her widowed mother. Their only contact in the U.S. is Kimberly’s aunt, Paula, who comes across as petty and begrudging. She sets Kimberly and her mother up in an apartment, making a big show of her generosity, but it’s a condemned ruin in a rough part of Brooklyn. Kimberly and her mother owe huge debts to Paula, so they don’t complain; in fact, they go to work in her clothing factory for illegally low pay. Meanwhile, Kimberly struggles to be the A student she was in Hong Kong, despite barely speaking English. She has no phone, can’t go out at night and wears handmade clothing, which essentially makes her a social pariah. And she has a debilitating crush on a boy who works at her Aunt Paula’s factory.
The story has the weight of fate, partly because of its universal themes and partly because of the intermittent references to Chinese traditions and traditional ways of thinking and talking. Jean Kwok, who, like Kimberly, came to Brooklyn from Hong Kong as a young girl, lets her remarkable protagonist develop at her own pace. Kimberly begins to learn English, and picks up buried meanings in the Chinese words she thought she knew. Sometimes she translates idiomatic expressions for the reader—a charming touch that just borders on being overdone. At any rate, Kimberly is such a sympathetic narrator that you’d forgive her anything. This is tested in the book’s final twist, when she makes a series of impossible choices that change everything. Even as you worry about what might happen, you trust her—after all, you’ve watched her grow up.