Tuesday, March 27, 2007



A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the first novel Xiaolu Guo has written in English (her earlier book,Village of Stone, was written in Mandarin and then translated) and it has been long-listed for the Orange Prize this year, and is a wonderfully endearing, beautifully written and very funny tale of love, identity and language. It is based on the diary in English which she kept when she came to Britain for the first time in 2002.

Zhuang Xiao Qiao, the narrator, is a young Chinese woman who calls herself Z because non-Chinese cannot pronounce her name.
An only child, her parents have sent her to London for a year to learn to study English so that she can return to China and head up international business for their shoe factory. She soon discovers that the English she has already learned before coming to Britain is totally
inadequate. Not long after her arrival in the city she meets a man and embarks on a relationship with him; he is twenty years her senior, a wannabe sculptor who earns his living as a delivery man in his old white van. Z falls in love, moves into his house in Hackney, and learns about sex, love and the English language. She eats in greasy spoon cafes, visits markets, goes to the cinema frequently tries to read newspapers and Virgina Woolf, and goes to a Soho live-sex peep show.

Every chapter begins with a dictionary entry for a particular word as Z slowly learns the intricacies of English, and muses on meaning and how differently things are interpreted in China. At the start of the book Z writes in her very minimalist quirky English which slowly becomes more fluent and sophisticated as her language skills improve. It is interesting to see our mother tongue from the point of view of someone who has to learn it from scratch, Z is bemused by some aspects of our grammar:
"Gosh, verbs is just crazy. Verb has verbs, verb-ed and verb-ing. And verbs has three types of mood too: indicative, imperative, subjunctive. Why so moody?"

"People say 'I'm going to go to the cinema...' Why are there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?"

There is a description of her attempt to read and understand the instruction leaflet that comes with a box of condoms which hysterically funny, and it made me laugh aloud so much that my DH woke up to ask what on earth I was reading.

She takes a month long rail trip round various European cities in Holland, Portugal, Germany, France and Italy, countries of which she knew absolutely nothing before leaving China and her observations on the people and places, just like her observations on London and Londoners made me realise how very differently we are seen when looked at by outsiders.

Back in Hackney she comes to realise that her lover is not going to commit to a future with her, and that eventually they will part.

Rating: 4*


I’ve just made a quick trip to the local high street to buy some fresh bread, fruit and veggies. Between the baker and the greengrocers I was accosted no less than three times by chuggers, all on behalf of the same charity. I began to feel really irritated by them, and quite antagonistic towards the charity they were working for. Its not as if they were rude or anything, they were incredibly perky and in-your-face smiley, but by saying “no” or “not now thanks” I was made to feel as if I was a mean-spirited child killer who wouldn’t give food to a starving man.

I do support charities, charities I know something about and really want to help; but being stopped over and over again by some out-of-work actor wearing a bright tee-shirt with a charity logo is not going to make me part with money. Crouch End Broadway must be one of their favourite target areas in North London because the street is awash with them week in and week out; I presume it gets some results or they wouldn’t be there.

Sometimes people are too busy to have to keep stopping, and they just don’t want to be hassled. Their behaviour today reminded me of a trip to Jerusalem some years ago. My DH and I took the kids to the Mount of Olives and from the moment we stepped out of the car we were surrounded by small Palestinian boys tugging at our clothes and wheedling “I guide you”, “I show you”, “Where you from?” “You American?”, “give me dollar please”, and finally realising we were from Britain “You want see Robert Maxwell grave?”…that was the final straw, I lost my temper and told them to b*gger off….Robert Maxwell’s grave, as if!


For supper this evening we had sausage and mash with courgettes and gem squash; a very ordinary English supper meal, but I decided that tonight I would make the mash a little different using a Japanese ingredient, Wasabi, to which I have become quite addicted. Wasabi is the root of a plant which belongs to the cabbage family, and it is sometimes known in the west as Japanese Horseradish. In fact it tastes more like a hot English mustard than horseradish. In oriental grocers you can buy the fresh root which requires grating, or you can buy it in powder form which is made up into paste using water. Alternatively, and this is what I usually do, you can buy it as a ready made paste in a tube.

This mashed potato is absolutely delicious, not only with the humble sausage, but with many other fish or meat dishes.


1kg peeled potatoes cut into equal sized chunks (use a floury potato such as Maris Piper)
150ml half-fat creme fraiche or single cream
3-4 teaspoons wasabi paste
Salt and pepper

Place the potatoes in cold salted water and boil until just soft enough to mash in the usual way. When mashed, add the wasabi paste and creme fraiche and blend in with a wooden spoon. Season to taste.

You can adjust the amount of wasabi and creme fraiche depending on whether you like your mash to be creamier or spicier.


violetforthemoment said...

The book sounds great - I've been umming and aahing over buying it for a while now and you may have persuaded me, despite my vow to finish the twenty-high stack next to my bed before buying any more books ever. I'm going to need a hell of a lot more cardboard boxes when we move.

Wasabi in mash? Genius.

Ash said...

I'm envying your gem squash! The Dutch haven't cottoned onto them yet, and so I haven't had one for almost five years. Luckily they are realising the benefits of butternut and those are more commonly available. This year I'm growing gem squash. I have 10 little plants being nurtured patiently. I hope to start a gem squash revolution in Holland!