Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

by Xiaolu Guo

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I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.

This is a novel that takes the form of a diary, and it follows the classic tale of the young girl from the country who comes to the big city.  In this case she comes from rural China to London with a well-used phrase book and a burning desire to learn all she can about her new, temporary home. Putting the proper words together in the proper order is really just the first battle, as Z (as she is called because no one can pronounce her proper, Chinese name), also has to learn concepts like privacy and romance — new ideas to a girl raised in a collective country. Her journal entries at first are in broken English — which has a great deal of charm on its own — but she learns very quickly and soon is able to ponder the intricacies of a relationship with The Englishman (that’s the only name we get for him — identity is more than a name, and a language is more than words in a phrase book. See, I was paying attention!). He’s an older man and an artist, and when I told the author I thought he was a little bit of a whiner, I think I insulted her in two languages. The relationship starts when Z asks to see his house, and his answer “Be my guest,” indicates to Z that she is welcome to move in. The words are really just the first thing you need to learn, honey. Because even with all her new words, Z has a hard time figuring her man out — he’s a vegetarian, he hates the city, he wants to go back to the land and be a farmer — things that Z fled from as fast as she could. Her comments as she tries to make the words do what they’re intended and make sense of it all are funny, charming and often very moving.

Z’s story could not have been told by any other writer, because her experience closely mirrors that of the author, Xiaolu Guo. Xiaolu learned English about 5 years ago, and frankly speaks it better than I do — I have yet to puzzle out postmodernism, and she seems to have a pretty good handle on it.

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