A Lover's Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

The Evening Standard, 8 August 2020

By Susannah Butter


Xialolu Guo has written an intriguing new novel of alienation and belonging, says Susannah Butter  


The couple in A Lover’s Discourse don’t like each other very much. They meet at a picnic on a cloudy day in Clapton Pond as the UK is gearing up for the EU referendum. The narrator has just moved to London from China and doesn’t know what the word referendum means, let alone Brexit. The man who becomes her boyfriend catches her eye because he is picking elderflowers and she’s never seen a man take an interest in flowers before.

Their subsequent relationship is based on arguments, from her pronunciation of words to philosophical concepts such as whether his penis is part of his body and the meaning of Barthes’ Discourses (to which the novel’s title refers). It’s as pretentious as it sounds, but redeemed by moments of humour, giving the book an intellectual rom com feel. At one point she grows frustrated with him while he’s asleep – how dare he not wake up so she can nitpick?

The couple don’t have names – author Xiaolu Guo has form with this. In her 2007 novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (shortlisted for the Orange Prize), the boyfriend character is nameless. In both that novel and here it is a deliberate move to show how rootless they are. As Brexit rumbles on in the background, the narrator is trying to find a place she belongs and her boyfriend – who is German but grew up in Australia – is feeling claustrophobic in his London flatshare.

A Lover’s Discourse picks up on familiar themes for Guo, a Granta Best Young British Novelist and a 2019 Booker Prize judge. Her 2017 memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, details how she grew up feeling alienated from her family in rural China, went to study at the Beijing Film Academy and moved to London in 2002. Here, through zooming in on a woman’s intimate thoughts about her relationship, she discusses cultural misunderstandings as well as why we gravitate towards being in relationships. The narrator here feels no connection to her family and settles on London because she’s offered a place at King’s College London. The subject of her PhD is on a place in China where every villager works reproducing Western paintings. Guo’s father was a landscape ink painter and there are thought-provoking sections on the Western colonisation of culture.

The story is split into eight short sections, named after the compass points, as well as down, up, left and right. The narrator travels to China, Australia, Germany, Italy and Purley on Thames, desperately looking for a place to belong to. When she becomes pregnant this need becomes more urgent. English is not Guo’s first language but her style makes an impact – she writes in short sentences, almost like haikus, making it feel abrupt and unsentimental, with lots of direct speech. Each chapter is introduced with a fragment of conversation that is then repeated in that narrative which seems unnecessary.The narrator shares her misunderstandings of language, which are meant to be funny but end up just making her look stupid – an invitation to a Liverpool versus Arsenal football match, for example throws her. She thought Arsenal was just a weapons factory and she is mystified by her boyfriend describing himself as a WASP. As the title suggests, it is more discourse than plot-driven novel, which at times feels leaden with too much analysis of emotions. But overall, the impression is of a story told with charm that will leave you in a ponderous mood.



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