|Image Credit: Daily Mail|
I had been waiting a while to read Jean Kwok's highly acclaimed debut novel, Girl in Translation. Waiting, as it does with a lot of other things in life, removes the gloss and renders the anticipated into just another disappointed expectation.
Girl in Translation is one of those letdowns. I have a fascination with Asian and Commonwealth Literature. I actively seek out books take the "immigrant experience" from the unseeing eyes of the soul and cast it into the knowing eyes of the reader. And I have an enduring and abiding love for anything Chinese. ;-). Perhaps in 20 years time, I can get to the stage where I can read a novel in Chinese. That would be the day!
But before dreams intervene, the present beckons in its all its naked presence. Kim is 11 when she and her Mom escape Hong Kong to eke out a poverty-existence in America. Arching behind this escape is the great American Dream - can Kim really overcome insurmountable odds and reach the epitome of financial success in a land that promises all and sometimes delivers? Her Mom works in a Chinese sweatshop under the watchful eyes of Kim's Aunt - a typical overdrawn stereotypical "evil" character who is jealous of any of Kim's success and ties them under the weight of debt to a roach-infested unheated apartment in New York. Kim is the narrator and the one who you know holds the passport to financial freedom. Working hard, helping her Mom in the 'finishing' section of the sweatshop, she aces all the tests, gathering scholarships despite her lack of English. As she grows older, romantic interests start to appear - and it's here that the novel starts to falter, in my opinion. The casting of characters becomes even more stereotypical - the most popular boy in school, of course, has to fall for Kim, while her own heart beats only for Matt. And who is Matt? The most handsome and nicest boy in the sweatshop, of course! Complications ensue, and the ending of the novel appears a bit rushed and contrived.
And that is the pity, really because the author's real life is anything but contrived. The book is based on Kwok's own experience and any writer who can draw from the milk of human despair and rise above it deserves to be appreciated. Jean Kwok spent 10 years working on this novel, and wrote this book for her Mom who worked in a sweatshop, just like Kim's. Yet somehow, this novel failed to speak to me. But don't let that discourage you - perhaps you might find more interest and empathy in it than I did. I am perhaps too harsh a reviewer, sometimes! :-)