The Guardian Review: RADICAL

The Chinese-British novelist's highly original meditation on language, authenticity and freedom

By Jude Cook, Sat 29 Apr 2023

An obsession with language, and how it simultaneously frees and limits thought, has been a consistent thread in Xiaolu Guo’s work since her 2007 debut, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Like that book, her marvellous new memoir, Radical, is organised around short chapters with disparate words and phrases as titles. For each one, she gives their etymology and Chinese translation.

In Chinese writing, a “radical” is the key component of a character, and Guo’s exploration of what it means to be rooted – to a continent, a marriage, a lexicon – is exhaustive and nakedly honest. She asks “What is language doing in our daily life?”, referring to “language as a way to live an authentic life”. The problem of living authentically – what it might mean for a rootless woman in the 21st century – is the book’s central question.

Radical picks up from where her previous memoir – the National Book Critics Circle award-winning Once Upon a Time in the East – leaves off. There, she settles in England following the death of her parents and the birth of her daughter: “The narrative of my past had been brought to a close … Finally I felt free from the burden of my family … at last, I could breathe fully.” In Radical, Guo leaves her partner and child for a year to take up a visiting professorship in New York, breathing the stimulating air of a vibrant city, free from the “heavy treacle” of domestic life. At first, it appears she is making a series of literary pilgrimages, flâneusing around Harlem and Jackson Heights. We follow her to the Whitman plaque next to Brooklyn Bridge and the street where James Baldwin went to school. However, a different purpose is quickly revealed: “Here I am, in pursuit of an etymology of myself.”

In a series of meditations on desire, creativity and freedom, Guo’s goal becomes nothing less than a total personal reinvention; a rebirth and renewal. On spying a crab shedding its shell by the Hudson River, she observes: “I saw myself as this crawling thing … I imagined myself moulting, trying to come out from my old skin, hiding away until the new shell hardened.” At night, in her room, she ponders: “Perhaps I was searching for adventure and encounters and, ultimately, some sort of freedom that I had never had in China or Britain.” Yet the solution proves elusive: “But what was this freedom? Illusion, delusion or unrealised possibility? Or was it the freedom beyond a woman’s house, with or without a room of her own?”
Before long, adventure arrives in the form of a tentative physical relationship with a “polite and restrained” lecturer in German translation whom she names “E”. “Driven simply by lust”, Guo admits she “wanted to possess E in order to possess his knowledge”. E suggests she might be a Lebenskünstlerin, “a master of living, an artist of life”. Visiting the opera, or taking refuge in his flat, she finds a vision of how a new life might look. She asks: “Could I see myself with more clarity in America?” Yet this promising liaison is cut short by the pandemic, forcing her to fly back to the UK in anguish and deal with the domestic life she left behind, lovesick and unfulfilled.

At home in Hackney, the enforced isolation of lockdown precipitates a wider meditation on her Chinese roots, the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, and her time as a teenage poet in the 80s. After she left her home country, she wandered different continents: “I did not put down roots, or even have my own patch of grass … part of me is always in exile.” She describes herself as “a human who cannot overcome, or deny, a very specific past”. She also concedes that her daughter anchors her in the present: “For the immigrant, the child is a new root.”



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