October Book Group

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers


‘The day I arrived to the West, I suddenly realised I am a Chinese.’

AT THE BEHEST of her parents, twenty-three-year-old Zhuang (Z) has come to London to learn English. Her parents run a shoe manufacturing business and need a fluent English speaker in the family to advance their commercial interests. Z navigates her way through her first weeks in London with only her English classes and her Chinese-English dictionary to guide her. She is constantly challenged by her new environment, but she is not homesick ‒ the only thing she misses about her Chinese hometown is the food. Loneliness is a problem, however, so when she meets a man with a kind smile in the cinema one evening, she latches onto him and they quickly become lovers. But love isn’t easy when so much is lost in translation.

Book cover of A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise-English Dictionary for Lovers is Guo’s first novel written in English and was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007.

The novel is written like a journal. Each month is broken into segments titled by the word that Z is trying to learn. When read in sequence these words become a synopsis of her physical and emotional journey in the West: “alien”, “hostel”, “guest”, “misunderstanding”, “privacy”, “intimate”, “frustration” and so on.

We kick off our Book Group evening with a discussion about Guo’s writing style. I read out a section of Carole Cadwalladr’s 2007 review in The Guardian:

I not Chinese. I British. I prefer read book with sentences not made look like broke. I prefer writer who not pretend not speak English when actually I think she speak English very goodly.

If you think this is annoying in a review, you might want to think carefully about picking up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

There is an immediate outcry. Everyone feels that Guo’s writing style makes Z’s story feel authentic and that Z’s broken English is pivotal to what the author wants to say about culture and self-expression.

Every night, when I write diary, I feeling troubled. Am I writing in Chinese or in English? I trying to express me, but confusing – I see other little me try expressing me in other language.

Z’s struggle to articulate her thoughts and emotions in English constitutes a challenge for the reader too. Can we take Z at her word, literally, or must we permeate a layer of cultural gauze to access her true interiority? Later in the novel, when Z’s English has improved, the author goes on to highlight the gap between linguistic fluency and genuine communication. In the segment titled “Frustration” Z reflects on a conversation she has with her lover:

‘[…] It is very difficult for you and I to find the right way to communicate.’

You listen, then you say: ‘You really are starting to speak English properly.

Z’s relationship with the lover whose name she can’t remember (‘You tell me your name, but how I remember English name? Western name are un-rememberable, like all Western look the same.’) is passionate, but fraught with misunderstanding. He is her first lover and she cannot see why they can’t be together forever. Twenty years her senior and bisexual, he knows why they can’t be. He tries to launch her into the wider world by persuading her to visit Europe, which she does, albeit reluctantly, but when she comes back, she is forced to confront the shift taking place in her own psyche.

I feel I am detached. We are not one body anymore. This is the first time I feel this. There is a big obsessed ‘self’ separating itself from my body and looking at your body […] We Chinese are not encouraged to use the word ‘self’ so often.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers gets a thumbs up from the Book Group. Guo’s writing is engaging, humorous and poignant and members agree that the novel provides an entertaining and thought-provoking slant on life in the West as well as a valuable insight into Chinese culture.

Next month, the Book Group will be talking about Dirt Road by James Kelman.


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