Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book 5 review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Xiaolu Guo

My 5th book out of 52 books this year was the quirky and endearing novel, ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo. Unlike the last novel I reviewed (The Goldfinch) this speedy little book took me one day to finish, not a week and a half. ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’  follows Zhuang “Z” as she is sent to London by her parents to study English. The year that follows is a year of discovery and awakening for Zhuang, as she studies English, life and love. It is a very sweet, charming and beautifully written novel, easy to review and well worth a read. 

The beautiful cover for Xiaolu Guo’s ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’

Guo’s novel is written from the point of view of 23 year old Zhuang, or Z as she first arrives in London with a very limited grasp of English, and a great sense of disconnect and loneliness as she leaves her native China and her family for the first time. 

The language used in the novel is very sweet. The novel starts with short, almost apologetic sentences as Z narrates her life with her limited vocabulary.

There are two or three pages in the novel simply in Cantonese, with an editor’s translation on the reverse of the page. In these pages the sense of frustration that Zhuang feels is palpable as she struggles to convey her thoughts in a foreign language and world. 
As the novel progresses Zhuang’s grasp of English improves, but she still continues to struggle to grasp the nuances of English culture and its many differences from the familiarity of her Chinese homeland. There are many unique and amusing phrases in this novel as Zhuang finds a way to describe everyday objects she doesn't yet know the words for in English or that have an interesting translation in Chinese. 

In a shocking development, something I learnt at university resonated with me when reading this novel, meaning my university degree can actually be applied to real life.


While reading this novel I was reminded of the concept of intersectionality. I know it sounds like a made up word (even Microsoft spell check doesn't recognise it) but bear with me. Intersectionality is the concept that all challenges and oppressions faced by individuals are interlinked. An individual’s life is informed by many different factors; their gender, their race, their language, their age, and not one of these factors can be separated out.

Drawing by yours truly

Zhuang’s experiences are not solely informed by her language and her struggles to understand and to be understood in English. Her life- and the novel- is about many more subtle challenges than that. Zhuang also embarks on a journey of sexual self-discovery and love with an older man, as she discovers her understanding of sexuality is inherently tied to her culture and upbringing in China, as well as her youth and naivete . She also struggles with the reality of cross cultural relationships, with her language school classmates and with her lover. 

The novel is full of observations on cultural norms. Zhuang discovers that although in many respects Western Culture appears more open than Chinese culture with more nudity and sexuality in the media, in other respects, the British can be closed and prudish. Especially when it comes to farting, frowned upon in the West but not so in China. 

Ultimately this novel by Guo is a beautiful account of love, life and language. Anyone who has ever struggled with a foreign language can relate to Zhuang's struggle to understand and to be understood. The novel is also a story of sexual awakening and expression, and includes some of the most beautifully written accounts of love I have ever read. This beats your average chick-flick novel any day. So next time you are after a short, quick and lovely novel to read pick ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ instead of a trashy romance and you will find yourself inspired, amused and informed. 

The Good bits 

I have mentioned it already, but every page has an interesting observation on Western culture or the English language. As an outsider, Zhuang's observations of our culture are insightful and at sometimes challenging. 

I came away from reading this novel with a smile on my face and a sense that I had read a really good story. Not many novels do that as well as ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’.

The Not So Good Bits 

Seeing one's culture reflected through the eyes of the other can remind us that our society can be excluding or negative. Reading this novel was an important reminder to respect others who perhaps cannot understand English as well as a native speaker, and to respect the difficulties people face in trying to speak in a new language. 

The way that Zhuang introduces herself as "Z" “but please no worry to remember…my name too long to pronounce” highlights how many immigrants to a new place feel they must change their identity and name simply to fit in better, to make it easier for the super majority. I have made it a goal next time someone introduces themself with a name I haven't heard before and don't know how to pronounce to take the time to learn their name properly. And to not do the Australian thing of shortening it to one syllable with an "o" at the end (Damo, Johno, Shorto etc etc). 

Yep this is what Aussies do...


4 and a half out of 5 

The Next Book 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Haven't started it yet but it is certainly the book of the moment, becoming a movie later this year. 

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