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 her grandmother while her mom undergoes treatment.
Emma feels out of place in the United States, begins to have migraines, and longs to be back in Japan. At her grandmother’s urging, she volunteers at 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 early to Japan.
I originally picked up The Language Inside because I thought the cover was gorgeous, then I turned it over and saw it was about a girl who was raised in Japan returning to America for the first time since she was a baby, and became intrigued. I was also pleasantly surprised to find it was written in verse. I haven’t really read any other books like it, so I thought I’d give it a shot, and ultimately, it was a fun experiment for myself and I thought it worked fairly well. Thompson’s imagery is really lyrical and beautiful at times, and it definitely pulled me in in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’m neither big on poetry nor on dance, and those are two topics that are discussed pretty heavily in this book, and I liked that Thompson was able to pull me in despite all that, and that is probably due at least in part to the fact that the book is written in verse.
I will admit there were some areas where I wished the book had been written in prose – there were some parts, particularly those discussing Cambodian culture, where I wanted more background or explanation, and I’m not sure that telling the story as verse really allowed for that. There were also some… I guess more “mundane” scenes where I wanted a little more sense of place, but due to the format, each scene is relatively short, so again, not sure something like that would have made a lot of sense, even if I wanted it. That said, those feelings (of wanting more of a sense of place and wishing the book had been written in prose) weren’t constant by any means.
While I was familiar with several aspects of Japanese culture that are discussed in this book, I learned a lot about Japanese dance and Cambodia. I liked that the book educated the reader in parts without necessarily making it feel weird. It felt natural to me, since Emma was learning at the same time. The only thing I wished had been a little more clear were some of the pronunciations – Emma goes into them quite a bit early on, and then it drops off almost entirely, so I wasn’t sure if I was pronouncing the Cambodian words and names correctly.
I really enjoyed the relationships between the characters – Emma’s relationship with her mother felt pretty authentic, and I liked her interactions with Samnang as well. It was interesting seeing the three cultures (American, Cambodian, and Japanese) through Emma’s eyes.
The book made me cry quite a few times, particularly when Emma talks about the Tohoku earthquake. The Language Inside takes place in September of that year, so the events are fresh in Emma’s mind and the passages dealing with the aftermath are particularly heartbreaking. I felt those were some of the strongest aspects of the story. While the grand majority of the book takes place in Massachusetts, the quake and tsunami are often in the back of Emma’s mind, and I thought that her feelings of helplessness – between not being in Japan to help her friends rebuild their lives and feeling lost when it comes to her mother’s cancer treatment and her family’s future – were handled really well in this book.
I will admit, I don’t know any teenager personally who feels about poetry the way that Emma does, so some of her explanations about poetry, imagery, and meaning felt a bit forced at times, and there were some areas where I felt writing the book in verse worked beautifully and others where I felt it lacked something, but overall I really liked this. I’m glad I picked it up and I’m looking forward to eventually reading Thompson’s other books!
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars