Xiaolu Guo’s new novel is a cerebral love story and a powerful portrait of our volatile political moment. Though its title is borrowed from a book by French philosopher Roland Barthes, “A Lover’s Discourse” is thoroughly original, a bracing portrayal of rootlessness in a divided nation.
Guo’s narrator doesn’t tell us her name, but she’s forthcoming about everything else. She left her home in China after her parents’ deaths and moved to London to study anthropology. Her arrival coincides with the 2016 Brexit campaign, which fueled resentment toward nonnative residents.
The novel’s story line is straightforward. Our narrator meets an Australian landscape architect, and as she works on her dissertation, they build a life together. But a straightforward story needn’t be one-dimensional.
“A Lover’s Discourse” works on two tracks. It’s a relatable depiction of an up-and-down courtship. And it’s full of thought-provoking observations about language, art, gender and expat life.
After dating for a bit, the narrator’s boyfriend (we’re never told his name, either) persuades her that they should live on a “shabby little boat” in a London canal. Local laws require them to move the craft regularly. Their ceaseless hunt for new moorings is a potent metaphor for her life as an immigrant in Brexit Britain, where right-wing campaigners foster an ambient hostility.
“Everything seemed to be sending out a message, saying: ‘Go home, jobless people. Go home, foreigners.’ ”
Her feelings are inextricably linked to language. Riffing on Barthes, whose 1977 book inspired her ruminative style, Guo recalls his account of visiting Japan. Barthes was befuddled by unfamiliar “signs and sounds. The miscommunication and the silence. The Japan of my world was London.”
The narrator’s dissertation is a documentary about Chinese artisans who make copies of famous paintings. Her work wrestles with questions of authenticity and intercultural understanding. After returning from Shenzhen, she’s frustrated that her professors don’t understand the self-taught painters’ disregard for status. “I had come from the same culture, and I felt I could not make this clear or make Westerners understand. The Western language and mentality did not allow me to do it.”
She and her boyfriend also see the world differently. They quarrel about where to live — and what to live in. He cites “Le Corbusier’s vision: a house is a machine for living.” She counters: “Isn’t that a very male way to think of a house?” As they quit their boat, marry and have a daughter, they’ll find interesting ways to disagree about ideas both mundane and profound.
Guo’s been doing excellent work for a while. “Nine Continents,” a 2017 memoir about her youth in China, won the National Book Critics Circle autobiography prize. Her follow-up is an intellectually stimulating gem, a timely novel that won’t feel any less beguiling as the years pass.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
A Lover’s Discourse
By: Xiaolu Guo.
Publisher: Grove, 288 pages, $26.