CategoryGuo Xiaolu

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

The lover: a Chinese woman who moves to London to study for a PhD. At a picnic one day, she sees a man picking elderflowers. She meets him again at a book club, and they get talking. From such random moments, love blossoms.

The discourse: a chronicle of the woman’s new life and an examination of her love, inspired by Barthes’ book of the same name (which I haven’t read). It’s told in a series of short chapters, snapshots in time.

Each chapter of Xiaolu Guo’s latest novel begins with a brief passage of dialogue that appears in the text later on. For me, this affects the experience of reading in two key ways. First, it emphasises the fragmented structure: you recognise the dialogue when you read it again, and the chapter seems to revolve around it, to become a self-contained piece. Second, the dialogue starts to feel more like a performance.

We end up with a love story that’s ragged in form rather than smooth. This is appropriate, because the experience of moving to London is far from smooth for Guo’s protagonist. There are immediate issues such as unfamiliar terminology (the word ‘Brexit’ appears everywhere when our narrator moves over, but not in her dictionary) and loneliness (“What were we supposed to do at night in our rented rooms, if we didn’t drink or watch sports?”).

As time goes on, the stumbling-blocks evolve, becoming subtler and, in some ways, more profound. The narrator would like to put down roots, but her partner is much more at ease with a transient lifestyle – at one point, they move into a houseboat, but it’s not her idea of home. The protagonist’s boyfriend is German-Australian, with family in both countries, while her parents have both passed away. Unlike her, he is at home in multiple cultures, and comfortable moving between them.

Language itself is a contested space for Guo’s narrator. In one chapter she’s at a New Year’s Eve party where her partner is conversing in English and German, and she can’t follow it:

I thought, even though I speak English, and I can read and write in English, still, I feel monolingual. Really, I had only one language. And even worse, I could not possess this language…Whatever I spoke, whether it was my borrowed English language or my native Chinese Mandarin, I didn’t feel I had that language in me. That language spoke for me, instead of my speaking it.

So perhaps we could see this lover’s discourse as her essay at working through her feelings, taking possession of what it is to live in this place, with this language. Guo’s novel is a love story which puts love to the test, because that’s what its protagonist needs in order to find solid ground in her life.

Published by Chatto & Windus.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Xiaolu Guo

It is National Short Story Week, so this week’s posts are all about short fiction. This includes finishing off my story-by-story blog of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 anthology, which I’ve let fall by the wayside these last few months. I have fives entries left, so let’s get back to it…

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‘Interim Zone’ is an extract from Xiaolu Guo‘s forthcoming novel I Am China; on the basis of this, the new book is set to be rather different from Guo’s previous novel, UFO in Her Eyes. We meet Kublai Jian, a Chinese refugee in France, and see the contrast between his boyhood in Beijing, and his current life learning French. This piece is the shortest in the Granta anthology, perhaps a little too short for what it’s doing. Still, there’s an effective sense that Jian is in an ‘interim zone’ emotionally as well as physically; and the juxtaposition of past and present sets up an interesting theme that I imagine is explored further in the novel.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Book notes: Xiaolu Guo and Benjamin Wood

Xiaolu Guo, UFO in Her Eyes (2009)

Silver Hill was an unremarkable village in Hunan, long since neglected by the Chinese government; until a peasant woman named Kwok Yun saw a ‘flying metal plate’ in the sky. The National Security and Intelligence Agency soon sends men to investigate; the results of this are chronicled in the documents which comprise the text of UFO in Her Eyes, as are the changes through which Silver Hill went in subsequent years. Shortly after seeing the UFO, Yun found and helped an injured Westerner – which inspired the latter to make a hefty donation to the village.

To my mind, the title of UFO in Her Eyes doesn’t just refer to Yun’s metal plate. It also makes me think of the glint in the village chief’s eye as she contemplates what could be done with the money from the Westerner, and the possibilities for further developing Silver Hill on the back of the UFO sighting. Xiaolu Guo’s satire is sharp as she depicts the urbanisation of Silver Hill, a process which merrily robs several villagers of their livelihoods even as it supposedly paves the way for good fortune. And it’s only too clear that Silver Hill’s development is probably based on nothing more than a mirage.

Elsewhere
Xiaolu Guo’s website
Video interview with Guo
Some other reviews of UFO in Her Eyes: Niall Harrison at Torque Control; Richard Larson and Karen Burnham for Strange Horizons.

Benjamin Wood, The Bellwether Revivals (2012)

Oscar Lowe wanted to go beyond the narrow horizons of his working-class upbringing in Watford; but the job he’s ended up in – care assistant at a Cambridge nursing home – isn’t all that different from the future his parents had in mind. But a random visit to a recital in King’s College chapel, and meeting the lovely Iris Bellwether there, brings him into contact with a more privileged world. Iris’s brother Eden is a brilliant but eccentric organist who believes he’s found a means of healing sickness through music – and there’s a chance he might be right.

Benjamin Wood keeps the tension up all the way through his debut novel: we know from the first page that tragedy is on the way, but how that comes about can still surprise. Wood also manages very well the game of revealing whether or not Eden’s theories are true. Underpinning this is the theme of free will, which plays into Oscar’s reflections on whether he can really become his own person. After The Bellwether Revivals, I’ll surely be keeping an eye out for Wood’s work in the future.

Elsewhere
Benjamin Wood’s website
Video interview with Wood
Some other reviews of The Bellwether Revivals: Three Guys One Book (and conclusion); Malcolm Forbes for The NationalBroken Penguins.

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