I wasn’t best disposed to Xiaolu Guo’s new novel A Lover’s Discourse from the outset. It opens with a quote from Roland Barthes, with whose work it shares a title. Oh God, Barthes – didn’t I read him for my Master’s? Am I really up for a book that opens with a Barthes quote? Am I going to have to Think? And then – horror of horrors – the book opens in London in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. The last thing I want to read about right now is Brexit. Every piece of fiction I’ve encountered that tries to be a post-Brexit state of the nation piece has fallen flat on its face, usually misjudging the tone entirely (hello, Last Christmas). My guard was most definitely up.
But take a deep breath and, happily, my first impressions were wrong. Phew. This is a short book about big ideas: language, semantics, identity, belonging. But it doesn’t wear these themes too heavily, and is a deeply thoughtful, touching and empathetic book.
Somehow I didn’t read Guo’s 2008 hit A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, nominated for the Orange Prize, at the time. Like her new novel, it is about a young Chinese woman in London, and it is inspired by Barthes. I don’t know if she considers A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary essential reading to appreciate A Lover’s Discourse, but I chose to familiarise myself with it first.
Our protagonist is an unnamed Chinese woman from Zhejiang who arrives in London in 2016 to undertake a PhD. We follow her up to the present day as she meets an (unnamed) Australian-German landscape architect, moves in with him, buys a houseboat, travels the world, marries and has a child with him, as well as completing her PhD. The story is told in eight chapters (titled West, South, East North, Down, Up, Left and Right, for reasons not made explicitly clear) made up of a series of vignettes, each also titled (‘An Ordinary Tradesman’s Job’; ‘Memory and Architecture’; ‘Power Is Beautiful’) and each also with a leading quote taken from the vignette. This feels like a distractingly detailed scaffold for a short book, and reinforces the idea that we should be Thinking. I don’t think the book needs this. The vignettes stand up by themselves, more often than not as effective springboards for deeper thought and ideas, particularly about language. I am a Germanophile second only to a Sinophile, and enjoyed the many musings on the differences between German, Chinese and English, but also how these are perceived by our native Chinese protagonist (‘English was always in the atmosphere like pollen…whereas German was like a specific mountain’).
In particular I found her relationship with English fascinating. It is always ‘borrowed’ to her: ‘I could not possess this language. It alienated me and it was never mine’. Unlike A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary, the book is written in fluent English, including her reported speech, although the protagonist writes about feeling ‘wordless’ or uncomfortable with her English. I found this conveyed a disconnect between her own perception of her language with her true ability to communicate. I found this quite touching, and it reminded me of conversations with Chinese colleagues and students in the UK where they had said similar things to me, usually in embarrassingly fluent English. I remember one PhD student feeling upset because she couldn’t swallow the ‘dn’ in ‘London’ like a native speaker. I had always thought of English as a highly flexible, highly resilient language, making it perfect for non-native speakers to inhabit and use and found this perspective quite eye-opening.
Her relationship with place is similar to her relationship with language. This is a great book about London, the London that people travel to from across the world to begin their adult lives. But London is a hard place to ‘belong’ to, and even with her ‘need to put down roots’ in London our protagonist can never really settle. This is shown quite literally in her inability to register her marriage. Her lover also lacks deep roots; she wonders ‘Where would you place your nostalgia, your Heimweh, your Sehnsucht?’ Her choice of PhD topic – a Chinese village where artists replicate masterworks of western art – also explores ideas of authenticity. The theme of belonging is intensely concentrated throughout.
Guo is effective at encouraging reflection, but is sensationally good at building empathy. She builds empathy in passing glances, such as the protagonist’s relationship with English, or her frustration in her PhD viva being challenged on Walter Benjamin (‘damn it, the Jewish / Nazi thing again – how could a Chinese person ever hope to get it right?’). She also does it very deliberately in the longer narrative passages, particularly those that tell us about our protagonist’s early life such as the deeply moving depiction of an abortion. Her reflections on new motherhood were painfully true.
This should be essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the lives of young Chinese professionals and students abroad, who appear to ‘come here purely with practical aims… faceless and voiceless.’
With thanks to NetGalley and Chatto & Windus for the ARC.