The third of the books for my summer book club this summer, I can't even think back to when and where I first heard about this book. It was probably sitting on my desk as a new purchase when I was trying to determine the books and it looked like a likely candidate, having much of what I strive to find in books for the group: not particularly well heard of, looking to contain enough issues to keep us talking for a while, intriguing writing structure, and the added bonus of being about a temporary immigrant from China to Britain. My specialty in graduate school was immigrant literature with a focus on Asian-American lit. And while this is not exactly that beast, it is a kissing cousin of sorts and so I thought it would be perfect to inflict on my unsuspecting group.
Written in the form of dictionary entries musing on unfamiliar English words by Zhuang (call her Z), a young Chinese woman who has come to London to study English for a year, this is tells of immigrant alienation, misunderstandings, and the small and large cultural differences that govern relationships between people from very different countries. Z's sadness and longing for human connection echo throughout her early entries as she tries to understand this very different place in which she finds herself living. She can't even communicate with the Cantonese family living on the other floor of the cheap, marginalized house where she finds a flat.
Then a chance conversation with the man seated next to her at a movie theater leads her to move in with the much older man, eventually falling in love with him. Her English improves and her dictionary entry musings become less pidgeon English and more properly colloquial but the disconnect between cultures remains and perhaps even widens as she comes directly up against the gulf that separates a more open and communal China and the privacy-obsessed, individually focused England. She stops relying on her little Concise Chinese-English Dictionary when she discovers that it lacks so much of what she wants to look up. But no dictionary can possibly detail and explain adequately all the freight of so much of what she learns.
Her English lover remains enigmatic to the reader, as he seems to to Z as well although we Western readers understand him at least slightly better than Z, seeing clearly how her year must end long before she does. His absence as a meaningful character makes Z's lonliness and sense of alienation even greater and her melancholic sorrow is oftentimes palpable during the novel. There are comedic instances to offset the pervading air of sadness though, such as when Z is completely baffled by the inappropriateness of buying and displaying pornographic magazines at her lover's home and when she disinterestedly continues feeding coins into the peep show slot in order to watch more and more of a graphic sex show.
Naive or just culturally unaware, Z doesn't come across as a victim, except, perhaps, during the beginning of her European tour, but she is an excellent tour guide to life as an outsider, one who doesn't speak the language well, doesn't understand the cultural context of things, and has no community to fold into for safety, companionship, and happiness. Her excursions outside the English language institute point out not only attitudes that we take for granted but also shine a non-judgmental but accurate light on those parts of our culture that we allow to flourish only in the seedy alleys and back streets.
I really enjoyed the structure of this novel, finding it to be more than a gimmick. And Guo's mastery in presenting the evolution of Z's language and vocabulary was nothing short of impressive. Z was the only character to receive a thorough handling but that helped to highlight her solitariness, even when living with her aimless lover. There was a feeling of emotional distance in this that is generally less marked in books written by Westerners but which seems in keeping with other Chinese authors I've read (Ha Jin comes to mind as a comparison in tone), even in those who spend time in the West as Guo herself does. I found this a thoughtful book, slow moving and serious, so it may not be for everyone. But as a look at cultural misunderstandings and relationship drift, I thought this was a good read.