Contemporary · review · verse novel · YA

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

15770498Hardcover, 528 pages
Published May 14th 2013 by Delacorte
Source: ALA conference

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.


I’m a fan of Thompson’s Orchards so I was gleeful when I got a copy of her latest verse novel at the ALA conference. Unfortunately, The Language Inside just did not do it for me the way I hoped it would.

There are many reasons for that but first I must give credit where it’s due. The novel is very multicultural and inclusive of people with different experiences and from different parts of the world. It also discusses what it means when the language inside you is not the language you are expected to speak – something that immigrant kids are very familiar with. I have been chided at times by family members by my tendency to talk in English but it’s worse for kids who are born in a country different from the ones their parents may call their own.

The novel though just had too many loose ends, too many things that were not sufficiently discussed. Emma gets horribly incapacitating headaches. We are told they are migraines and that’s about it. Weren’t there any tests done? Is it a symptom of something more? Why doesn’t anyone else seem more concerned about these headaches? Why isn’t she seeing doctors so her headaches can be cured? The novel does not even go there.

The characters are rather flat. Emma mentions her Japanese friends, Madoka, in particular, and yet we know next to nothing about this girl. She’s curiously empty, an echo of Emma’s thoughts. This is similar to all the experiences Emma has had in Japan, almost as though they are not real experiences but imagined ones. There is also one scene that gave me pause. When Emma goes to help with the tsunami cleanup, someone or the other mentions that “even you, Emma-chan, came to help.” It may not have been intended as such but the way this is worded gives it a distinctly colonialist tinge that I was uncomfortable with.

The whole “she has a choice to  make” is not much of a choice because it is understood that she will be returning to Japan either now or at the end of the year. Taking this into consideration, the tension and the conflict is significantly reduced. There is also a curious portion about a Korean boy “Jae Suk” that goes nowhere. His attention is noted and left dangling. The romance is slow and I liked how it occurs gradually but the ending is strangely affected and Emma’s “get someone else to look after your kid siblings” smacks of selfishness in a way that I don’t think the author intended it to be.

It was a mixed bag of tricks for me, this novel. Emma was a bit of a Mary Sue and she grated on my nerves (a phrase that Christina used in one of her reviews and that lingers with me for obvious reasons). However, there were parts that made this book interesting and worth reading. It depends on the mood you are in when you read the novel and how willing you are to like the protagonist.


One thought on “The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

  1. I was disappointed in this one as well–in fact, I think I never finished it. I enjoy Thompson’s writing quite a bit, but the plotting and characterization felt disconnected for me. :(


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s