“It is the test of a novel writer’s art that he conceal his snake-in-the-grass; but the reader may be sure that it is always there.” (Anthony Trollope)

Happy Chinese New Year!  This year is the Year of the Snake, so I chose a snake related quote to start, and had originally planned to take a snakey, not-too-obvious look at literature for Chinese New Year, but sadly my brain failed me.  So I’ve gone the more obvious route of choosing two authors of Chinese origin; there are two great novels and I hope you like them.  (I had intended to be much more timely and publish this post on 10 February, but with a belly full of celebratory Peking duck and seafood noodles working their soporific effect, I failed in this also.  So far it’s fair to say that the year of the snake is not off to a flying start with me).

Firstly, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (Vintage 2007).  The female protagonist of the novel, Z (because the Brits can’t pronounce Zhuang), arrives in London speaking minimal English.  Over the course of a year in which she has a relationship with an older British man, she learns the language and some life lessons.  The novel is divided up into months, charting Z’s year, and each section has chapter headings of words and definitions that Z learns as she masters the English language.  For example:


Confuse v mix up; perplex; disconcert; make unclear

English food very confusing. They eating and drinking strange things. I think even Confucius have great confusion if he studying English.

….I confusing again when I look at whipped cream on little blackboard. What is that mean? How people whip cream? I see a poster somewhere near Chinatown. On poster naked woman wears only leather boots and leather pants and she whipping naked man kneeling down under legs.  So a English chef also whipping in kitchen?”

This fresh take on the English language makes for a really entertaining read.  Obviously the image of some sort of BDSM kitchen in a café offering afternoon tea is funny, but it also makes you consider why we use the words we use, and the way language can seem arbitrary.  Certainly she highlights oddities like:

“why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?…”I go” is enough expressing “I am going to go…”Really.”

She’s right – why do we say “go” twice?  And language snobs take note, language is not set down in golden, irrefutable, unchanging rules :

“One thing, even Shakespeare write bad English.  For example, he says “where go thou?” If I speak like that Miss Margaret will tell me wrongly.”

While exploring language in a truly inventive way, Guo has done a great job of creating a distinct character’s voice, and not just because she starts off in stilted English and becomes more fluent throughout the year (by the end of the book Z writes: “I take the snowdrops. I gaze at the flowers in my hand. So delicate, they are already wilting in the heat of my palm.”)  It’s because Z is forceful, unique and engaging person who you really feel you know by the time you turn the last page.

For the second book I thought I’d look at Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo (Abacus 1982). The voice in this novel is very different to Z’s.  Guo’s novel is written in the first person, a very forthright engagement with the reader including direct questions. Sour Sweet is written in the third person and takes a broad look at the Chinese community in 1960s London through the Chen family and the Triads.  When these two “families” intersect, tragedy ensues.  The third person narrative allows for an ironic distance, but simultaneously you really feel for the characters.  When Chen meets the Triads to ask for a loan he constantly tops up the tea they aren’t drinking and fears his fruit offering is damaged:

“He noticed his best shoes had become quite sodden with tea. He exclaimed and moved away, seeing that the fruit in the bags had indeed been squashed and, as he had feared, there were greasy-looking patches on the brown paper.  The bags were already starting disintegrate.  Perhaps this was why they had rejected his offering.”

This passage demonstrates so much about the novel as a whole: the insight into a culture and power that operates across countries, the pathos of every day life, the humour of every day life.  Small tragedies that can escalate.  Failures to communicate even when you speak the same language.

And I suppose the idea of communication is what unites these novels as well as their consideration of Chinese cultures.  Both highlight the inadequacies of language, and the inadequacies of language users, as we try to reach out to others through imperfect means. Both are funny, both are sad.  Sour Sweet indeed.

Here are the books with a laden plate of what I know, from having read these novels, is wholly inauthentic  Chinese food.  (Which looks awful – I’m clearly not cut out to be a food blogger). But it was delicious.  I wish I could tell you that the picture represents all the Chinese food I ate that night, but that would be so very untrue…


4 thoughts on ““It is the test of a novel writer’s art that he conceal his snake-in-the-grass; but the reader may be sure that it is always there.” (Anthony Trollope)

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