Kirkus Review : RADICAL

An elegant and unreserved account of a life lived in full recognition of its possibilities

26 May 2023


The award-winning novelist and filmmaker presents essays “in pursuit of an etymology of myself.”

In this “inner monologue,” Guo, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for her memoir, Nine Continents, reflects on her recent life using the prompt of Chinese radicals, the roots “from which other words grow and meanings bloom.” A radical ideogram representing sex, color, beauty, for example, gives rise to thoughts about autoeroticism, the difference between Eros and Aphrodite, and sexual joy between a man and a woman, for which the Chinese idiom is “clouds and rain.” For Guo, “language is everything,” with words “my very physical existence.” The mind and the body, though, must be “in harmony” because “our body is the root of our emotional life, and our imagination.” That she often reflects on her flower garden and sex with her lover, E, reveals Guo as not just compulsively cerebral, but deeply sensual as well. She gives form to her lexicon through the use of radicals, grouping essays under such headings as encountering, separations, enduring, and impermanence—words suggesting her deepest concerns. Early on, the author describes a visit to New York City and her affair with E. When the pandemic struck, she returned to London to live with her child and her child’s father, J. There, she obsessed on her yearnings for E. The book ends with her revisiting New York two years later, when E was not there. This narrative arc will be familiar to readers of Guo’s novels: a Chinese woman travels to another country, meets an English-speaking man, falls in love, and reflects on how cultural differences color her experiences. In her novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary of Lovers, Guo writes, “If you are a real artist, everything in your life is part of your art.”

An elegant and unreserved account of a life lived in full recognition of its possibilities.



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  © Xiaolu Guo