"London, by appearance, so noble, respectable, but when I follow these Alis, I find London a refugee camp."
Z is a recent migrant from China to London, sent to the West in order to learn English and make contacts to help build her parents' manufacturing business. She's keen to immerse herself in British culture, but finds that things aren't as she was expecting, as her finances force her to live in run-down areas and she struggles to express herself. It's not until Z meets an older English man and starts a relationship that she starts to get to grips with her new life. But the man she has fallen in love with is a free spirit, something completely outside Z's sphere of understanding, and she finds their relationship as tricky as the new language.
The absolute best thing about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the way it is structured and written. Each chapter is titled with a new word that Z has learned, and a dictionary definition for each word is included. Z's narration starts off as very choppy, with her language skills improving as the book goes on. I just loved that - it really helped me get inside Z's head and appreciate how difficult it must be to move to another country by yourself when you aren't fluent in the language. Z's mis-communications and observations about British life and culture are remarkably perceptive and one of the strengths of the novel.
There's also a lot of commentary on the nature of language. Z struggles with the tenses and grammar of English, and the way that English as a language is more 'individualistic' than Chinese, with the subject being the key element of a sentence. Guo uses observations like this to explore whether your language can affect who you are and your culture - does language mirror culture or shape it? I studied the development of language a bit at university, so I found it very interesting to reflect on questions like these.
So what I liked about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was the voice of Z and her experience of moving to London and learning English. However, I didn't particularly enjoy the way her relationship with the older English man was written, and this was one of the main elements of the novel. There was no explanation of why she became so attached to him, it was something that just seemed to happen without any feelings being involved. Similarly, it was very convenient how Z seemed to find a man wherever she went on her European trip, and these experiences felt a bit forced. I would have liked more focus on the migrant experience, and less on her relationships.
On the whole, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a good book that's well written. The immigrant experience is handled perceptively and the structure of the book is interesting. I enjoyed it, but it didn't exactly set my world on fire.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2007
Edition Read: Vintage, 2008
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Read Alongside (links to my reviews):
- The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger - A Bangladeshi woman moves to America to live with her new husband. The issue of culture clash is dealt with fantastically here, and I ended up giving this book 5 out of 5.
- Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok - The migrant experience told through the eyes of eleven year old Kim, who moves to America from Hong Kong with her mother. This isn't a happy book, but it is a powerful one.
- The Good Children by Roopa Farooki - The story of four siblings who spread out in the world in an attempt to get away from their overbearing mother. Lots of contrasting experiences here.