Reading & Reviewing | R&R 032
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R&R 032 | A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Xiaolu Guo
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
First published in: 2007
This edition: Vintage Books, 2008
Cover illustration by Georgina Hounsome
…with an unseen photograph used by Ralph Mercer Veer / Getty
Cover design by Suzanne Dean

"Sorry of my English", an apologetic twenty-three year-old Zhuang (Z) jots down as she begins her journal-esque narration about her year abroad in London, hoping to learn the English language. At this stage, she doesn't yet realize that she's about to learn a whole lot more. Making her way through confusing London, her concise Chinese-English dictionary at the ready, she meets and falls in love with an Englishman twice her age.

When you have a young Chinese woman move to England, naturally the cross-cultural differences between East and West are not to be left out; they are observed and mentioned by Z throughout her journal. She critiques certain Western habits in a funny and truthful manner (for instance, she can't grasp the idea of Western politeness and blurts out everything she thinks), and often she actually has a point.

Westerners do gain some insight in Eastern culture by reading this novel, but also of what it's like to move to another country, dealing with another culture. Seeing as Xiaolu Guo has been in the same position as Z, it seems to be a truthful account of what it feels like for one person to be confronted with two distinctly different cultures. A delightful technique used to authenticate Z's struggle with learning English is the clear improvement of grammar and spelling as we read on. (It is this particular feature of the book which got me interested in buying it.)

But more so, this story is about a young woman who loses herself in a relationship, straying further away from herself… but it feels necessary in order for Z to find herself once more.

To her this man is ideal; she romanticizes their relationship and him, while in reality his flawed character doesn't have anything to offer Z – certainly not a future together. We know it, Z doesn't. Not only new to English culture (or Western culture), our naive heroine is completely unfamiliar with what it means to love and be loved, and is in for a tough journey of self-discovery.

Love is blindness, after all.

She appears to be writing this journal to her English lover ("you"), which gives this narration its intimate atmosphere, and its honest style – almost like reading private letters – is exactly what helps the reader understand the awkward position Z is in, with her idealisation of a relationship where love is anything but requited.

Not your most typical novel – unlike everything I've ever read before, anyway – but that is a definite plus. Whether you are looking for a book on cross-cultural experiences, or in need of a strong story about the development of self, this is a book to consider.

Either way – reading this story has made me curious about Guo's other work. When the time is right, I'll be sure to try another novel.


R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008

Karin Elizabeth
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