Friday, December 26, 2014

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Source: Goodreads
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Xiaolu Guo
Originally 2007, I read 2008
283 pages, romance, psychological

A young Chinese woman from a peasant background moves to London to study English for a year. Shortly after arriving, she meets a British man who is 20 years older than her, falls in love with him, and moves into his house.

In this novel, written in progressively better English, she recounts events from her English life as they relate to both her own personal development and her relationship with her lover, to whom the writing is addressed. Love and isolation and frustration and culture shock intermingle in this unhesitatingly truthful, intimate story.

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Language and Understanding

The most interesting aspect of this novel, which is clear to the reader from the first page, is the way it is written in broken English that improves over time. Some readers may find this difficult to understand, especially at the beginning of the book where her English is particularly bad. It does improve significantly over the course of the novel, so gradually that you don't notice the changes. I applaud the author for being able to do this successfully.

Even at the beginning of the novel, the narrator is able to communicate her ideas clearly and succinctly. And in that broken English she struggles to make sense of where she is, in a new place and culture. Everything from baked beans to gardens seems strange to her. But in her struggle to understand, she highlights the humorous aspects of coming from another culture, and honestly points out the strangeness of much that we take for granted in the West.

And then there is another type of understanding that seems to escape her grasp time and again: understanding of what her lover is thinking. While her struggle is clearly based on language and cultural differences, it also demonstrates the way we sometimes have trouble truly knowing and understanding the people we are intimate with. They may hold widely disparate views and opinions, and we may not take the time to understand them in all their complexity. If that is even possible.


The narrator, Z, finds herself exploring more than just a new language and a new place. More importantly, she explores herself in new ways - what she thinks, feels, wants, and believes. Coming from her Chinese peasant background, with a mother who was always disappointed in her, Z discovers that she does not want to work in her parents' factory. More importantly, she discovers that she does not have to, and she can choose to shape her own life the way she wants.

Z also discovers the pleasures of sex for the first time. But this is not only in reference to her relationship with her lover. He encourages her to explore herself and to masturbate. She finds that she enjoys porn and a peep show that she pays 20 pounds for in London. The different culture, as well as her relationship, gives her the opportunity and encouragement to reach out and explore what she wants in sex as well as other aspects of her life.

The narrator's candid honesty about all these aspects of dislocation is the real beauty of this novel. If you are looking for a book about confusion and emotional development, I highly recommend this one.

Where I found it: Lane Public Library book sale, Hamilton, OH, USA

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