Title: The Language Inside
Author: Holly Thompson
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
Source: Purchased @ The Strand
Emma Karas was raised in Japan; it’s the country she calls home. But when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Emma’s family moves to a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts, to stay with Emma’s grandmother while her mom undergoes treatment.
Emma feels out of place in the United States.She begins to have migraines, and longs to be back in Japan. At her grandmother’s urging, she volunteers in a long-term care center to help Zena, a patient with locked-in syndrome, write down her poems. There, Emma meets Samnang, another volunteer, who assists elderly Cambodian refugees. Weekly visits to the care center, Zena’s poems, dance, and noodle soup bring Emma and Samnang closer, until Emma must make a painful choice: stay in Massachusetts, or return home early to Japan.
Even though I only gave this book 3/5 stars, I can’t deny that it’s a story you definitely haven’t read before, with a very unique cast of characters. I can safely say I’ve never read a book quite like this, and though there were some things I didn’t like about it, I can still say it’s really worth a read.
Emma Karas is probably one of the most different characters I’ve ever encountered. To star with, she’s a white girl who was raised in Japan. I guess that by itself might not be so special, but the way Thompson deals with her homesickness is. It was interesting to read about a character like Emma, who you wouldn’t think comes from a particularly unique background just to look at her. Many of the other characters at first make the assumption that Emma is happy to be “back” in America, when really, Japan has always been her home.
I thought that was a really interesting concept, but didn’t think Holly Thompson carried it out as well as she could have. For me, there was really only one stand-out scene dealing with this issue, when Emma first joins Model UN at her new school and asks if any of the Asian girls speak Japanese, only to have them make fun of her for thinking all Asians speak Japanese. I really wish Thompson had put in more scenes like this, because other than that incident, Emma basically just tells the reader how people see her. Basically, I was hoping for that piece of the story to be more powerful than it actually was, but I still thought it was an interesting idea.
My favorite part of the story was definitely all the times that Samnang taught Emma about Cambodian culture and history. Cambodia has a special place in my heart because my high school took trips every summer to Cambodia to do service work. I never went on the trip, but Cambodia became such an important part of my school’s community that it is still a meaningful place to me. I’ve seen Cambodian dance performances, so I was really happy that was included in the story as well.
It was also interesting to read about the tsunami in Japan that happened a couple years ago since I haven’t read any fiction about that before. I don’t see that much fiction about current events, so it was cool to learn about it from a new perspective.
Despite the aforementioned pieces of the story I liked, they were a little overshadowed by the writing style. Normally, I love books in verse. Sonya Sones was one of my favorite authors when I was younger and all of her books are written in verse, and I even warmed up to Ellen Hopkins after a couple books, though I still think Sones is a better writer. Though I understood why The Language Inside was written in verse due to the presence of poetry in the story, I didn’t feel like it needed to be written that way. The verse was a bit too choppy and awkward for my taste, and I just thought the story could have easily been written in prose and gotten the same points across. Verse was an interesting format for this story due to the poetry elements and because the book is largely centered around language, but I ultimately felt it wasn’t carried out as gracefully as other novels in verse that I’ve read.
However, despite the awkward writing, I stand by my earlier statement that The Language Inside is worth reading. Thompson covers topics rarely seen in contemporary YA, and has succeeded in creating a very unique cast of characters. If reading this book makes you want to know more about Cambodia, I strongly recommend Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down, a beautifully written book based on the life of a survivor of Pol Pot’s killing fields.