Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation is a marvelous story about the cost of each of life’s decisions. Until Stephen Hawking invents a machine for traveling between the worlds of the multiverse, we each only have one life to live. Every path taken, every door passed through, is a step toward one destiny and away from another. Most of us, most of the time, make our choices without the blinding awareness that choosing A means rejecting B, often irrevocably. Sometimes we may look back and wonder how things would have turned out if we’d made a different choice at an earlier moment of critical juncture, but the mundanities of daily life generally keep us from considering too closely the awesome implications of so many of our decisions.
Kwok’s first-person narrator, Kim Chang, is eleven when she and her mother immigrate to the US from Hong Kong. Aside from mentions of the subway, Kim’s early experience of the city could be lifted right from the well-documented immigrant slums and sweatshops of 19th century New York. It seems impossible to believe that such things could still happen in modern America, but you know with a sickening certainty in your gut that Kwok’s characters are living a very real, if fictional, life. Kim’s narration of her life in New York is an effective mix of the confusion, directness, and naïveté of childhood with the later clarification brought by time and experience. You feel Kim’s disorientation, fear, anger, hope, elation, and despair right along with her as her story unfolds. Kwok has an ability to make the reader experience her characters’ lives that is, for me, the mark of truly excellent writing.
The way Kim forcefully, deliberately, chooses her future throughout the narrative is heartbreaking in a way that is both deeply sad and also something else. Reassuring, maybe? I think it is a near-universal experience that happiness in our adult lives is never what we expected it would be when we are younger. Inevitably, there is incredible sorrow on our way to finding this out, but isn’t it nice to know that there is happiness at the end, no matter how unexpected the form?