This week’s Recommended Read comes from Ellen Perry, our Arts Administration Intern, who has been charmed by the unusual and thought provoking A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.
This was one of those book purchases that falls into my – or should I say ‘the,’ perhaps others will empathise – ‘I didn’t know anything about it but it just attracted me’ category. Its procurement from an obscure charity shop made my acquisition all the more mysterious, and the subsequent life experience that the book spilled perhaps seemed even more significant as a result of the lack of any prior knowledge or preconceptions on my part. I bought it in the summer holiday between the second and third year of my degree studies, one of the slightly unsettling and thrilling periods of time as a student in which I suddenly had bit of space to read what I wanted, and time to do so. My reading habits have always benefitted from a change of scene, and so back at my family home I sped through the pages of Guo’s novel, which tells the story of Zhuang (or ‘Z,’ as she introduces herself to others, anticipating the mispronunciation of her full name) who is sent from China to London by her parents to learn English.
Indeed, the change of scene I was subject to in moving home for the summer is somewhat incomparable to the experience of Z, who is thrust into the bustle and unfamiliarity of the unaccommodating capital city. Z’s narrative voice is a reflection of her own broken English and journey towards fluency, and although this aspect could potentially jar with some readers, for me it only served to make the book all the more compelling. Any novel that breaks away from conventional prose has often already won half the battle in endearing me just through doing so. Remarking upon the complexities of grammar, Z contests that in China, ‘We are bosses of our own language.’ But the narrative that is delivered undeniably presents her as very much in charge of English, too, albeit in a non-standard way. The unconventional word combinations and comments on everything from baked beans to the pub make the book what it is – an original, amusing, bittersweet understanding of the world and a chapter of a life.
At the centre of the novel is what is essentially a love story between Z and an –interestingly – an unnamed man. This is interwoven with snippets of Chinese history and culture, often told through Z’s accounts and recollections of her family and their life. I particularly liked the structure of the novel, with each chapter title an excerpt/definition from Z’s precious Chinese-English dictionary, which the following chapter is linked to in some way. Through this, the novel explores the relationship between rules, ideas and definitions on the one hand, and real life situations on the other, as Z’s perception of the world expands and is challenged. I found it difficult to bear witness to this, fictional though it may be, and not be prompted to re-assess my own perceptions and understanding on some level, too – one of the many powerful things that reading can do.