Learning and living.
Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
First Published: 27th February 2007
Date Reviewed: 23rd June 2016
Zhuang Xiao Qiu has come to England to learn English so she can have a better career in China. Early on she meets a British man at the cinema and they quickly become lovers. He’s twenty years older than her and, as she comes to realise, very different in personality, but she loves him. And with her ever improving language skills she hopes it will all work out.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers is a pretty easy-going book about cultural and personal differences that hold sway over even the hottest sexual chemistry (though not all of it’s graphic; I’m saying it to allude to the slightly humorous nature of the book). Told in a broken English that begins with little knowledge of the language and slowly improves over the course of the novel until it’s edging towards fluent, it’s quite a lovely book even if it’s far from perfect.
In regards to the language, obviously it is part of the whole concept. Guo wants to show not only the literal improvement of someone with only a basic knowledge when they first land in England but also how much can be conveyed no matter the speech, and this works. Granted, in choosing this book you have to be happy to read a whole novel in this broken language, but there is much to like about it. The chapters are driven by dictionary definitions, each chapter revolving around the aspects and real-life examples of a word definition. There are also a few pictures, mostly basic maps, and the passing of time is marked in months, episodes segregated by the months they occur.
One of the best things about Guo’s development of the story as a whole is the way you get a very clear picture of Xiao Qiu’s lover no matter her terminology. Guo succeeds in fleshing out the nameless male main character without our ever hearing from him directly (we only hear of him through Xiao Qiu and through a couple of letters he writes to her), and whilst some of his characteristics elude Xiao Qiu for some time, you as the reader cotton on to him pretty quickly. You see the drifter in him, the non-commitment that he tries to explain to Xiao Qiu but fails to do so well enough for her to truly understand (and that’s not to do with her English but to do with his dithering). On the other hand, this man seems to be unaware that he may feel more than he says, more, even, than he realises, and so at times the novel is quite powerful emotionally.
At the same time, Xiao Qiu is rendered rather stereotypically and with a strong focus on sex. I’ve noticed this about Guo, that she spends a lot of time, needlessly, on sexual subjects and it’s the case here, too (hours spent at a peep show, for example). It means that, because Xiao Qiu is understandably meant to be, at least somewhat, a reflection of a Chinese immigrant, that reflection comes off badly. Doubtless most people will recognise that she isn’t representative of Chinese women except in the ‘proper’ sections on culture (as in the sections where she speaks of things that are more a true representation of a Chinese woman’s thoughts) but this doesn’t change the confusion – why did Guo write Xiao Qiu this way? Especially as Guo moved to Britain from China herself? (And we could also question the way Xiao Qiu moves in with her lover soon after meeting him when we’ve been informed of how traditional her mother is and, later, that Xiao Qiu wants the married-with-house-and-children life herself.)
To reference a later book of Guo’s that I’m including because I read it first, there is the same plot detouring here as there is in I Am China, but its impact is not as overwhelming on the story. Xiao Qiu goes off to travel for a few months and it’s just a series of train journeys and meet and greets with a particularly negative ratio of creepy strangers to caring strangers that doesn’t advance the plot and, despite Guo’s suggestions to the contrary, doesn’t contribute to character development either. But as soon as Xiao Qiu is back in Britain the story picks up again.
There is some commentary on Communism here, as well as Mao’s era and the distinct differences between British and Chinese culture. A good half of Xiao Qiu’s relationship with her lover is composed of conflicts caused by both parties’ relative inability to accept the other’s cultural differences, and this is where the showing of both personalities is most prevalent. You as the reader can see where Xiao Qiu has made a relationship with someone who is not a good fit – and that’s without any of the cultural differences – and where both could do with better communication of the sort that is not down to language.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers isn’t perfect. There’s the filler section, the gratuitous references to sex and the plot that’s not particularly compelling – a fact that manages to slip under your radar at times due to the language, a fact that may or may not be considered convenient. But it’s a nice read, it’s got a lovely literary fiction aspect to it that can be enjoyed by both lovers of the genre and those who don’t tend to like it, and it makes you look at situations in a particular way. Those who have learned English as a second language may relate directly to some of Xiao Qiu’s frustrations and those who haven’t will appreciate what Guo is trying to do.
August 10, 2016, 1:36 pm
Im not sure I could endure a book with so much in fractured English. I can’t decide whether to give I am China a go or 20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth
August 23, 2016, 1:38 pm
Booker Talk: I’ve heard Fragments can be difficult but from my experience with I Am China I would recommend Fragments over it. It’s not fractured in language but I Am China is fractured in other ways.