This book sat and waited for me for a very long time. It looked good – and that it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007 was an excellent sign – and yet I didn’t pick it up. I thought that I knew just what it would hold, just what it would be about before I even read it.
The combined forces of my own Clearing The Decks Project and Orange January made me pick up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers on New Years Day. And I’m very glad.
Yes, the story, the themes were very much as I had expected, but reading brought them into my heart and into my mind.
“Beijing time 12 clock midnight.
London time 5 clock afternoon.
But I at neither time zone. I on airplane”
Zhuang Xiaoqiao (called “Z” because people find it difficult to pronounce her name) is a 23-year-old Chinese girl sent to the UK to study English. I wondered if I could cope with Z’s fractured English, but that didn’t worry me for very long at all.
The picture painted of Z is perfect: she is naive, and eager to learn, she is always watching and thinking. I was charmed, and I wanted to follow her, to walk beside her into her new life.
Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever.
I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home. I’m not sure that I could ever be that brave.
A chance meeting and a linguistic misunderstanding result in Z much older man, a failed artist, a drifter. In time she falls in love with him.
That relationship illustrates wider cultural differences. Attitudes to food, travel, sex, openness, privacy … so many things that go to the very heart of relationships. So many differences, so many things that Z’s dictionary just can’t explain.
And it’s one thing to identify differences, but quite another thing to understand everything that those differences mean and to learn to live with them.
“But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart.”
All of the other characters, even her lover, were faintly drawn, emphasising how different and how alone Z was. She clung to her lover and there was no room for others. How I wished she would mix with her fellow students, experience a different life, but no.
I still loved her, but at times she infuriated me.
How much was character and how much was culture? I really couldn’t say.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers has is flaws: the use of language is sometimes inconsistent, and the story does drag in places.
But it illuminates some wonderful truths as Z navigates through her relationship.
“People always say it’s harder to heal a wounded heart than a wounded body. Bullshit. It’s exactly the opposite—a wounded body takes much longer to heal. A wounded heart is nothing but ashes of memories. But the body is everything. The body is blood and veins and cells and nerves. A wounded body is when, after leaving a man you’ve lived with for three years, you curl up on your side of the bed as if there’s still somebody beside you. That is a wounded body: a body that feels connected to someone who is no longer there.”
I am so pleased that I have read this book at last: I have met a heroine to cherish, and her has touched my heart and my mind far more that I thought it would.