Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers' by Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo (1973- )
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers (2007)

283 pages

A 23 year old Chinese woman, Zhuang, leaves her home country for the first time and travels to London, sent by her parents to learn English. Lost in a culture and language she barely understands, she casts about for something solid to hold on to.   Eventually she meets and moves in with an Englishman who becomes her life raft in this strange new world --- but who unfortunately for her is lost in his own way.   He is an artist, 20 years her senior, and unwilling to commit himself to anything, afraid of relationships that become too demanding, of selling out as an artist (which ultimately leaves him unable to support himself from his work), and unwilling to become part of the corporate, working world he despises.

As the title indicates, the core of the story is the role of language in relationships; words have definitions that one can find in the dictionary, but the definitions can be fluid in reality, leading to misunderstandings.  Each chapter in the novel is headed by a word and its definitions, and the chapter then evolves, directly or indirectly, around this word. The multiple meanings these words often have, meanings at times only tangentially related to one another and often critically dependent on understanding the context and culture in which they are used, confront the reader with the confusion Zhuang (or any new English speaker) feels as she tries to understand both the society around her and also her new lover.

Zhuang simplifies her name to Z for the benefit of the English speakers she meets, and her thoughts and dialogue are expressed in the English of a foreigner who is still early on the path to learning English, and who approaches her study of English from a mother tongue with a significantly different grammar. (The epigraph is a simple "sorry of my english".) For example, she has difficulty understanding why verbs need to be conjugated in English since 'time' is expressed explicitly or by context in Chinese and so verbs are always used in their infinitive form. This approach of allowing Z to speak and think in her broken English, forces the reader to feel more deeply Z's struggles, because along with the characters she meets, we sometimes find ourselves struggling to understand her intent.

The story is at times funny, as Z describes her occasional misadventures brought on by a lack of understanding of the new culture around her or when she describes an aspect of the culture that as a reader we are aware of but had never considered consciously, and now realize seems odd when pointed out.   But at a deeper level the story is a tragedy; Z and her boyfriend are in love, but the tie they share is that they are both lost souls surrounded by a culture that is foreign to both of them but in different ways. As the story progresses, it becomes painfully clear that a fundamental misunderstanding pulls down their relationship: they are drawn to each other and fall in love with each other because each sees in the other someone to hold on to in an otherwise strange world, but each brings an expectation to the relationship based on their personal and cultural histories. Z looks to find the solid, family-centered household that she is familiar with from China, while her boyfriend expects an almost open relationship (psychologically) in which they share a house and a bed, but have the freedom to be alone and on their own at times. The result is that they struggle as they each try to learn to be happy with the other's approach to life and their relationship, and at the same time change the other to fit their radically different images of the ideal couple.

In the end, the book provides no easy answers to resolve this conflict in expectation and understanding, much as a dictionary often cannot finally answer the questions of a reader who does not know the context for the word they look up.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
by Scarlett Thomas at The Independent

by Nancy Baker at

by Niall at

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