Book Review - A Lover's Discourse

Xiaolu Guo is adept at exploring cultural difference. Her delightful 2007 novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was a humorous examination of linguistic confusion and miscommunication between the sexes, related by Ziao, a young Chinese woman, newly arrived in London to study English.

A Lover’s Discourse, a meditation on a mixed marriage told from the woman’s perspective, attempts something similar, but the unnamed narrator is older, more assured, less naïve, and with better language skills. She refers to her partner (also unnamed) in the second person creating a vivid sense of a continuous conversation – albeit in fragments. Guo’s narrator arrives in London six months before the Brexit referendum, on a scholarship to study for a PhD in visual anthropology. She falls for an Australian-British-German landscape architect, allowing further opportunities for cultural dissonance.

The novel is inspired by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), and quotes from his work are scattered throughout. Guo’s narrator first sees her future husband as he is picking elderflowers. In a prologue, she interrogates whether it is possible to fall in love “from first sight”. (Barthes claimed love at first sight was a “hypnosis”.) Her partner disagrees. She concludes: “You were from a culture I had no knowledge or deep understanding of. Besides, you were very tall and I was short. Height sometimes disorients our perspective.”

After they get together, the couple move into a houseboat on a London canal. She is restless, desperate to put down roots. Guo deftly explores their tensions as a couple. They argue about the usual things - where to live, what to eat - but she is more interested in their cultural and philosophical differences. Landscape and home are recurring themes in Guo’s work and on one level her novel is about how environment shapes our choices. “Do you think memory constructs architecture, or does architecture construct memory?” the narrator asks her partner. Later, she ponders: “how strongly an urban landscape could shape people’s spirit.”

I love the sly digs at Chinese authoritarianism: The narrator is immediately distrustful when a doctor asks for her family history: “In China, the question of family history means whether you were born in a family whose status was either peasant or city dweller, and whether they were Communist Party members or not.” She contemplates offering her professor “a little bribe” with chocolate: “to pat the horse’s arse.” Later, when encountering a bleak European  coastline she compares it to home and realises that the Chinese landscape is infinitely worse: “On our coast there were so many rusted hulks, abandoned factories, beaches crowded with peoples stripping them of seaweed and shellfish.”

Guo has described her novel as a “feminist exploration of closeness in the midst of difference.” It’s a subject she knows well and she delivers it in her customary forthright and entertaining style.

Originally publihsed in the Tablet