Paperback, 354 pages
Published March 27th 2007 by Chatto & Windus
When a young Chinese woman, newly arrived in London, moves in with her English boyfriend, she decides it’s time to write a Chinese-English dictionary for lovers. Xiaolu’s first novel in English is an utterly original journey of self-discovery.
This book plays with language and by doing so delves into the depths of our human-ness to a space where we exist without words – where all we are is sensations adrift in a constantly changing world. Z, as the protagonist names herself, is me, you and any other woman trying to forge an identity for herself in a country that is not hers, trying to speak a language that doesn’t make sense to her. She calls herself Z because people don’t pronounce her name correctly and it’s not worth the effort to continue correcting them. I know exactly how that feels. Even though my name is so easy to pronounce, I have had people take the easy way out of pronouncing it and there have been times when I just shrugged and let them call me by that wrong name because it’s too much of a bother to continuously correct them.
Z’s trials and tribulations learning English in London feels particularly authentic, especially since the book is narrated in what is “improper English” but what I felt was a correct depiction of how a person learning English would speak. The English gets better as the book continues and Z learns more but the novel always manages to be beautiful no matter the caliber of English used. There are moments when Z gives up completely on English and Chinese text is followed by an editor’s translation. The book does not just portray Z’s growing proficiency with English but also Z’s growing, deepening, widening as a person.
The romance has a certain weight to it. Z is completely aware of how she comes across to her older lover; she knows that she is stifling him but her inability to let him go despite the disparity in their love feels true and sincere. There’s this portion where she muses:
‘Love,’ this English word: like other English words, it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these specific tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is 爱 (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.
If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last forever. It will be infinite.
I loved this novel for many more reasons than I can wholly articulate on this medium. I hope you guys give it a chance and allow yourselves to experience something that is bittersweet and lingering. A love that starts all of a sudden and grows beyond differences in languages and cultures.