Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
Kimberly Chang and her widowed mother arrive in Brooklyn from Hong Kong in the early 1980’s indebted to Kimberly’s unscrupulous aunt and uncle, who paid for their journey. They are forced to live in a vermin-infested apartment with no heat for several years while Mrs. Chang works off her debt at her brother-in-law’s clothing factory.
Kimberly, a sixth grader who speaks very little English at the start of the story, works hard at her studies, then joins her mother at the factory after school to work for their survival. She excels at math and science and obtains a scholarship to a prestigious preparatory school in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood. She continues to shine academically, earning a full-ride scholarship to Yale. Along the way, she navigates the rough and confusing world of American teenagers, hiding her extreme poverty from her best friend, boyfriends, and teachers. Kimberly remains detached from most social pressures, if only because she has no time to explore- she studies, she has a job in her high school’s library, she works until late evening in the factory, Monday through Saturday. But she does find love and suffers inevitable heartbreak.
The window onto the world of Chinese immigrants forced by their own countrymen – even family – to work as slaves in the Land of the Free is compelling. Kimberly’s voice is clear and engaging: she is pluckiness personified. Because we know Kimberly almost exclusively as a pre- and young teen, the novel seems more suited to a teenage audience. Its style is youthful and a little wide-eyed and the events border on the contrived, particularly the strange ending. I was absorbed – I read this last night in a bout of insomnia – but it felt more like a brief escape from the world rather than a lasting perspective into it.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
This book is a set of tangled-together short stories that follow the fall and death of an English-language newspaper based in Rome. The stories recount the adventures and everyday lives of the paper’s current reporters, editors and managers. These are interspersed with brief vignettes that follow the paper’s publishers, from its founding patriarch to a fumbling grandson who presides over its inevitable demise (a modern newspaper without a presence on the web – you know it’s doomed!).
Rachman nailed the expat experience – the way one moves just outside a circle of belonging, protected by selective ignorance of culture and language. There might be serious forays into the host country – fluency in the language, a native lover or spouse, friends from yoga class – but one never really belongs. I loved the way the staff referred to the world outside of the newsroom: “I’m headed out to Italy for coffee…” The stupid choices the characters make – the affairs, the dead-end relationships, the career sabotage – all fit the notion that outside of our normal cultural and societal cues, we put ourselves in situations we would never encounter at home.
I found Rachman’s writing fresh, smart, and at times hysterically funny. He’s cynical without condescension and poignant without sentimentality (though those of us with soft spots for dogs will be heartbroken). For such a short book there are heaps of characters, but I spent as much time with each as I needed and wanted. The pacing was just right. I was left feeling that I’d read something original and refreshing.
I withhold a fifth star for one principal reason: the other side of original is gimmicky. As much as I enjoyed this clever, sharp début, I hope the next trick Rachman pulls out of his pen is completely different. The magic only works the first time.
Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
I was beginning to think the title of this book should be “Novel Without End.” But Armistice was achieved, the pages ticked away and at long last, as Prohibition took hold and Hitler was jailed, the end finally arrived.
Follett has such an engaging and easy storytelling style; he gives shape to each of his characters– even the most minor warrant description that puts them firmly in the scene. His settings are rich with detail, his dialogue smooth and believable. It seemed that he left no historical stone unturned in creating this 1000 page epic. We are shown the mines of Wales; the British aristocracy at home in their country estates and at work in London society; Russia as fury at the czar rises to a fever pitch and the soviet is formed; upstate New York in the heydays before Prohibition; Washington D.C. as the U.S. becomes a world power; the WWI battle sites of France and Germany. It is exhaustive. It is exhausting.
I was rolling quickly with the narrative for the first 600 pages or so. Then tedium set in. The battle scenes dragged on; ironically, they did little to capture the true horrors of trench warfare. The passion of Russian Revolution was dulled by too much detail. The huge number of major and minor characters wasn’t so much a problem as was losing touch with their relevance. I felt that Follett’s ambition became arrogance as the characters’ personal lives devolved into soap operatic intrigue.
So, it was exactly what I expected of Follett – richly detailed, but easy-reading historical fiction – and I enjoyed about 60 percent of it. It just seems like another case of a famous writer in need of an editor who won’t back down in the face of powerful celebrity.
Trespass by Rose Tremain
Could this possibly be the same author of the wrenching and visionary The Colour or the whipsmart and strange Restoration or the vivid and profound The Road Home? Trespass is but a shadow of the brilliance that has defined Rose Tremain’s writing to this point.
I’m not entirely certain of the point of this novel. I categorized it under mystery/crime because that seemed the most fitting- it certainly isn’t up to the standard of literary fiction that would warrant its placement on the long list for the Booker.
I’m about to rather diss an author I hold in great affection, but it’s where this book left me. Reading Trespass I felt like I was reading a darker version of Maeve Binchy. Ms. Binchy is a darling and I can sink with great comfort into her sweet and lyrical Irish romances, but I know that’s what I’m getting. The settings are gorgeously rendered, the characters are always a bit too colorful to take seriously, there’s always some dust-up that is settled with hugs and kisses in the end. Trespass read like Maeve having a dark and bitter day.
The characters bugged the crap out of me. They were nearly all stereotypes that bordered on caricatures: the butch and horsey lesbians, the effete and snobby English antiques dealer, the slightly addled and backwards French peasants, the thin and bitchy French estate agents.
The story itself- the plot, the thrill, the crime- was actually quite good. Tremain held the pacing taut and the twists knotted in a way that kept the pages turning. And she did brilliant justice to the beauty of the Cevennes.
Had I not known her to be capable of magic, had I read no other Tremain but this, I would likely rate it higher than two stars. But ultimately, this was a disappointment from an author whose previous works have left me breathless with awe.
The Bells: A Novel by Richard Harvell
Lushly and lovingly written, this is a bijou of historical fiction. With a fantastical beginning, Gothic settings and larger-than-life characters, the narrative retains a slight glow of fairy tale. Yet there is enough true history woven through to create satisfying intrigue.
I cherish novels that set out to tell a good story and authors who have great affection and respect for language. Harvell tells a strange and twisted tale in a fresh and vibrant way. Bravo!