“I thought we together, we will spend time together and our lifes will never be separated. I thought I don’t needing go these double-bill screenings to kill raining nights. I thought I will not scared to live in this country alone, because now I having you, and you my family, my home. But I wrong. You doesn’t promise anything solid.”
23 year old Zhuang (Z for short) moves from China to London at the turn of the millennium to learn English, armed with nothing but a wad of cash and a Chinese-English dictionary.
England is an assault on her senses; the cold, the dirt, the food, the impenetrable language with all of its tenses and constructions she cannot wrap her tongue around.
Brave yet naive, on a trip to the ciné-lumière Z encounters an older English man, twice her age – a delivery driver-cum-sculptor with whom Z becomes immediately infatuated. Before long, they’re living together. What follows is a clash of youth and middle age, China and “The West,” female and male as the two lovers struggle to find a way to co-exist in harmony, despite their clear affection for each other. Their life together is a catalogue of love-making and fighting, stuck on repeat.
The novel is written in broken English, with the reader stumbling through the text as Z struggles to navigate the new terrain of England, its language, and her first encounter with love. Whilst others may find it off-putting, I felt it added an authentic dimension to the experience of a non-native speaker getting by in a foreign country. As we progress through the narrative, Z’s English improves, and with it does her own maturity and understanding of the world around her.
‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ upends and subverts expectations. It may not be a wild or dramatic tale – in fact, not a huge amount really happens in terms of action over the year’s course of the book. It is, however, a touching and poignant look at the dynamics of relationships, cross-cultural exchange, and youth.
‘When I was in the primary school, the mathematics teacher taught us to count until we were too tired to count anymore. The teacher said that the last number is ‘infinity’. It is a number but numberless. One can count and count until the numbers become uncountable. Infinity, it is an uncountable future. Here, in our kitchen and bedroom, our battle is an infinity.’
A quirky, melancholy story which is nevertheless peppered with gentle humour, Xiaolu Guo’s novel is a fresh take on the coming-of-age novel, set against a backdrop of linguistic and romantic minefields.