Reviewed on recorded bookshow by Ro Bennett in Oct 2013
This book, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize, was left at the Steval by a guest. When I saw it I initially wondered why someone would want a Chinese - English Dictionary for Lovers at the Steval - I know it’s pretty remote- but...??? Then I read the full title and realised it was a novel. So I borrowed it.
The protagonist is a 23 year old Chinese girl who has been sent reluctantly to England to learn English by her parents. Impoverished peasants, they have worked desperately hard and are now in the more profitable business of making shoes. As the story unfolds we realise that they have clearly made huge sacrifices to try to enable their daughter to improve her career choices and enjoy a more comfortable life than they have had.
The book is written like a journal. This is an extract from one of the early chapters:
‘Nobody know my name here. Even they read the spelling of my name Z-h-u-a-n-g X-i-a-o Q-i-a-o, they have no idea how saying it. When they see my name starts from Z, stop trying. I unpronouncable Ms Z. (I also googled this and her name is pronounced Jwang Show Chow. There is a lot of humour in the way the English is written, and accounts of the misunderstandings, both linguistic and romantic. For instance, a young man walks her home and she tells him she would like to see where he lives. He replies, ‘Be my guest’, so when he turns up for the next date she has her suitcase presuming he has invited her to stay with him.
However, there is also pathos. When she arrives in England, the poor girl is absolutely lost and petrified. She is often bewildered and hurt as she struggles to understand and make herself understood. She is perplexed also by the attitudes and values and the differences in culture and customs from her Chinese perspective. The English man she becomes romantically involved with is a complex character and not particularly kind or nice. As the story develops, his behaviour and motives cause her confusion and distress as he blows hot and cold, sending her mixed messages.
As the book progressed I began to find it a bit depressing as their relationship floundered and seemed to begin to disintegrate. And I didn’t like the ending. It left me feeling flat and a bit disgruntled. None the less I would recommend it as there was enough to enjoy to make it a good read. It was certainly different.