A CONCISE ENGLISH-CHINESE DICTIONARY FOR LOVERS by Xiaolu Guo (Nan A Talese/Doubleday). 283 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Xiaolu Guo’s coming of age novel has a hugely endearing heroine in the person of Z, the 23-year-old daughter of Chinese shoe factory owners sent to London to study English on her own for a year.
The novel starts off with her arrival as she narrates the story in blunt and ungrammatical pidgin. Later the language gradually shifts and improves as she becomes fluent in the idiosyncrasies of the English language and of Western sexual mores.At first Z is bewildered and annoyed with London’s apparent contradictions. Why, she wonders, does such a developed country keep its old buildings? She marvels at huge English serving portions and can’t seem to be able to order a drinkable pot of tea.
This confusion only deepens when Z stumbles into a Fassbinder movie and meets her new boyfriend, a 44-year-old bisexual vegetarian handy-man and sculptor, strongly committed to his own notions of individual and sexual freedom.
What follows is a lot of erotically charged, poignant melodrama as a headstrong young woman from collectivized China falls in love with a self-involved bohemian from Hackney.
Pragmatic to the marrow of her bones, she is both intrigued and repelled by his artisanal sensibilities and anarchistic charm. This is conveyed in increasingly compelling language as Z matures and grows as a character and a linguist.
We also feel her growing frustration with the life that awaits her back in her native China, underscored by indignation at what her lover takes for granted in the West. Her intense sexual and cultural awakening is accompanied by bitter disillusionment. Yet the novel remains oddly unsatisfying.
Z lands in London as an outsider and returns to China as one, transformed but still lacking any definite direction.
What will happen to Z with her newfound Western refinement and loss of innocence? Guo, like her heroine, is either unable or unwilling to grant us the satisfaction of anything conclusive.