What confers identity, and what gives a sense of belonging? Is it family? Locale? Community?
In her charming novel, “A Lover’s Discourse,” Xiaolu Guo explores these universal questions through the experiences of a man and woman who meet and fall in love despite their considerable differences.
The two first cross paths in London in 2015, just as Brexit begins to dominate the conversation. She has recently moved from southern China to pursue a graduate degree at a British university. Her parents have recently died, and her decision to start over far away from difficult memories is a deliberate one. When she picks up and moves to another continent, she expects to experience loneliness – but she’s not prepared for just how unmoored she actually feels.
He is a landscape architect who grew up in Australia, though he lived in Germany during his teen years before moving to Britain as an adult. His father is originally from Germany, while his mother is from England. The two are still very much a part of his life.
The couple first meet in a park while socializing with mutual friends. She first spots him while he picks flowers. She remembers it well. Their story, told through a collection of memories, follows their experiences as they fall in love, get married, and have a child. While the book traces their journey through these formative experiences, there is no real plotline. Rather, Guo skillfully employs this relatively mundane backdrop to explore the loftier, more universal themes of personal identity and purpose.
For example, how much does a shared language and culture frame someone’s sense of self? Guo’s young woman has neither when she moves to London. Can the city still be her home? These questions emerge as we watch the young woman struggle with a new language and a community that is vastly different from her hometown in rural China. Perhaps the way in which a person stands in contrast to these elements shapes a sense of identity, Guo suggests.
On the other hand, the young man passed his formative years in three different countries. Is one of those locations still his home, or is it always wherever he happens to live? With parents from two different cultures, he feels the influence of family and ancestors upon his present life. Does this curious sense of identity get passed forward to a future generation?
These are weighty questions to ponder, and it is a credit to Guo’s talent as a writer that this slim volume succeeds so beautifully in addressing them. Her prose possesses qualities of poetry, and her plot is structured just enough to make the story cohesive while still managing to evoke the ethereal quality of memories.
The story is told in brief chapters, some only a page or two long. Each begins with a few sentences of dialogue shared between the two lovers. Neither of them is ever named, an omission that lends a sense of intimacy – because why would they introduce themselves, if their conversation is solely between the two of them?
Following these fragments of dialogue, both the man and woman reflect upon scraps of memories that reveal how differently they recall the events of their shared lives. These experiences – socializing with friends, deciding where to live, interacting with members of their extended family – form the basis of their bond. But they also underscore considerable differences between the lovers.
Other details also add impact to the story. The two recall their shared residences, including a houseboat and a tiny flat, which have left them feeling adrift and confined at various points in their relationship. The timing of the Brexit vote is not random, either – it brings with it a heightened awareness of national identity that makes everyone leery of strangers. Guo uses the couple’s struggles as a microcosm of a national conversation.
While Guo asks timely questions about societal division, she is not prescriptive in her answers. She leaves it to readers to discern their own truths.
“Failure. Success. Did I see my own life in these terms?” she writes. “In some ways, my life had just begun. Perhaps there would be something there that could be called mine, and ours.”