Xiaolu Guo’s novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers is breezy, at times child-like, exquisitely painful and wise. Chronicling the journey of a young Chinese girl, Zhuang Xiao Qiao; her story begins with the arresting phrase “Sorry of my English”.
It is with this tentative phrase that we embark on the first entry in a journal, a sort of personal dictionary, filled with English definitions and stories from her time away from home. Dictionary for Lovers is the story of a mainland girl who grew up in the poverty of an isolated village and her move to London for an education in English. As the book progresses her, so too does her awkwardly broken and disjointed English, lighting the way as she feels her way from child to adult.
The novel is the story of Zhuang Xiao Qiao developing as an person, and English-speaker and a woman as she takes a lover. The match seems as awkward as her halting English – he is much older and has lived a solitary life. As Xiao learns how to find her voice in English, she also learns to find her voice as a woman. The experience of Xiao’s story is, for the reader, the experience of approaching Western culture with new eyes. Guo’s prose is most powerful when communicating the sense of the alien and unknown, the deep confusion and ambiguity that exists in the space between cultures and languages.
The convention of a dictionary gives the author Guo, and the protagonist Xiao a space to deconstruct words and in doing so to unpack the tensions between East and West, between Chinese and English and between Xiao and her unnamed lover. Guo deftly weaves the changing English voice of Xiao and the analysis of definitions without distracting from the easy, flowing prose. However, the ease of the well-crafted writing does not mean that this is an easy story to read. The pain of isolation, the frustrations of a relationship, the challenge of learning a language are all captured with unflinching clarity in powerfully evocative writing.
Because of the unique narration of this book, it invites rereading in a way I’ve never encountered before. This is the first book that I finished and immediately turned back to the first page and began reading again. By the end of the novel, the reader has returned to the familiar as the distance between Xiao and the reader has been closed, as the distance between Xian and English has been closed. Xiao is a different person at the end of the novel and to return to who she was at the beginning of the novel is entertaining and insightful.
Guo has given us a fascinating and very engaging story which is wonderful for it’s profound identity as a novel. A personal journal that is written for herself, the text of this book doesn’t just describe her journey but it is the manifestation of that journey as her writing shifts from stumbling ineptitude to confident fluency. This story cannot work in any other form – a movie of this story is unthinkable and even an audio book would be nonsensical. Moreover, this novel was authored in English and would fail if translated. This story is as much about the words that make the story as the words of the story. This novel was excellent and enjoyable. It provides an enlightening perspective and does so with elegance and craft.