First, there’s the name. This is not an actual dictionary. Though each chapter does begin with the definition of a word and explores the concept in some manner through it. The title is very clever, very cute and will probably appeal to the Lit Fic audience.
Then there’s the cover. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but in this case, by all means, DO! A red backdrop, scattered with sundry green leaves surrounding an exotic, faceless and naked Oriental woman. Plants, China, the peeling off of layers (physical and otherwise) and the emergent sexual awareness – these are all part of the story so the cover art captures the mood of the book really well.
A young woman, Zhuang Xiao Qiao travels from a remote Chinese village to London, to study English and in search of a better life. She builds her impression of the new world as well as of her newfound adulthood, painstakingly through the foreign phrases and concepts of English. Her broken expressions actually don’t stilt the story at all. On the contrary, the ideas come across as fresh, the perceptions innovative and the words, poetic. The language improves through the length of the book as she understands herself, the world around her and the language better.
She meets an older Englishman and falls in love with him. This is also the bittersweet story of the ways we try to understand each others’ unique worlds. Words mean different things to different people and to two people from such diverse backgrounds and cultures – do they bring them closer or force them apart?
I loved this book. It was fresh, original, charming and at times, heart-breaking. Definitely a book I’d gift to a good friend and reread in a few months. I’m just not sure whether I’d want to read another Xiaolu Guo book. The freshness and novelty value of this book may not carry through in her others and I would like to carry the mood that this book left me with.