Xiaolu Guo: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007)

The stories of expats – the descriptions by someone who has left his/her country of citizenship (temporarily or permanently) and is now residing as an immigrant in another country –  form usually interesting scenarios for the reading. The encounters between two different cultures bring interesting phenomena or observations to the surface – those, that are often caused by misunderstandings between languages or other cultural codes. Sometimes misunderstandings are light and funny, sometimes more provocative and the story goes deeper under your skin. (Of the latter type of migrant literature in Finland can we name for example Kissani Jugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci).

Xiaolu Guo depicts a story of a young Chinese woman who starts her life from a scratch when she moves to England, London.  We follow her story for about one year span. Helplessness is a feeling that would best describe her presence in this new country, where she has no previous connections nor decent language skills for survival. The exploration of a new culture goes into deeper level, as she starts a relationship with an Englishman. The encounter of these two people is one of a kind, as the start of the relationship starts from the misunderstanding. “I want to see where you live”, she says. “Be my guest”, he answers back. She interprets this as an invitation to come and live in his house.

The structure of the book was one of the most appealing features of the book. Each chapter has a word as a headline, which resembles that of a dictionary. This gives a good frame for the book, as the meaning of the term for her is explained in each chapter. The sentences of the story follow the level of her language skills. The more time proceeds, the more skillful and complex the simple sentences develop into. Some witty observations of her new home country are also interesting: for example, when there are 26 characters/letters in English alphabets, Chinese has equivalent 50 000 characters(!). She also likes to play with the words and their meanings, as we can read from the words such as “ill-legal” or “demon-strator”.

Eventually, the integration to the new country becomes perhaps easier for the protagonist, when she learns the language faster through the love affair. Their relationship forms the basis for the book, and the tension between the protagonists is original.

This book is not solely a feel-good roman, even though the lightness, humour and the themes of the story could indicate that, but tackles with serious issues. Some of the members liked the book, as it brought into mind the own reflections from the past –  how did it feel to be young, more naïve and how eager were we ready to “hit the road”. Also, the progression and development of the protagonist’s language skills are interesting to be followed as the story proceeds. As a contrast, some of your book clubbers did not like this novel too much, and would have left it unread, unless weren´t part of the book club.

(Concise= narrow or giving a lot of information clearly and in few words)

-Marika

xiaolu

Cover: LibraryThing

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