Emma Karas truly understands the meaning of the word ‘dislocated.’ When her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, the whole family suddenly relocates from Japan to Lowell, Massachusetts. Emma feels as though her body and soul suddenly live on different continents. Her guilt about leaving behind the country and friends she loves just as they begin to heal from the devastating tsunami is almost overwhelming–especially as she faces the terrifying reality of her mother’s mortality. She’s become literally homesick as her stress manifests in severe migraines. However, when her grandmother arranges for her to volunteer at a long-term care home, Emma meets Zena, a poet with locked-in syndrome, and Samnang, a fellow teen volunteer with an unhappy past and a gift for dance. Through the growth of her delicate new connections with Zena and Samang, Emma taps into her slumbering poetic talent and learns that home can be more than a geographic location.
Since I read this novel as part of the 48 Hour Book Challenge, I was able to simply sit down and read it without interruption, finishing it in an hour flat. I am very thankful that I was able to read this lovely novel in a single sitting because for that hour, I was utterly transported in the way that only great fiction can achieve. Novels in verse can be tricky–but when they work, they can really work and The Language Inside is a prime example of a successful novel in verse. Thompson’s free verse expresses Emma’s voice and situation perfectly as she attempts to navigate her sudden transplant from Japan–her home since infancy– to the United States–her birth country. The fact that the move has been prompted by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis has only added to Emma’s sense of loss and isolation.
However, I found Emma’s particular isolation especially relevant for my student population–and for many modern kids. We have a large number of students at my school who have grown up around the world. Emma’s experience, as a white American who spent nearly her entire life in Japan, can be very representative of the experiences of many ‘third culture kids’–children and teens who spent most of their developmental years in a culture different from their parents. This reality makes her isolation and search for identity particularly complex and poignant. However, it also leads Emma to seek out connections with a more multicultural group of individuals in her new town than many other recently relocated teens might.
In fact, I particularly enjoy the skillful way that Thompson weaves together so many different topics into a coherent whole through her full-formed cast of characters. From traditional Cambodian dance to poetry composition to PTSD, Emma and her newly built community of fellow outsiders expose the reader to a range of experiences and topics as the characters’ varied emotional journeys intersect in unexpected ways.
While the story does follow a clear series of concrete events, this is a quieter novel; it focuses on an emotional rather than physical journey. And while I found the conclusion satisfying, I would guess that some readers who prefer their tales to be more action-packed might feel less fulfilled–or even have difficulty finishing. But for poetry fans and readers likely to appreciate a quieter but emotionally rewarding novel, this is a surefire winner.
This is a truly multicultural story about the complexity of identity, family, and finding an authentic personal voice. The Language Inside was an immense pleasure to read and I look forward to sharing it with my students this fall. A shining 4/5 stars!