A Lover's Discourse
I am always drawn to narratives that talk about home and belonging. There’s something very cathartic in reading about other people’s experiences and having them validate some of your own feelings of displacement and uncertainty.
A Lover’s Discourse begins in 2016, just before the UK’s Brexit referendum, and follows a couple as they navigate through their differences and try to make a home together. Their relationship is largely told from snippets of the couple’s conversations but we also gain access to some of the private thoughts of the woman. Their lives aren’t perfect and they aren’t very well matched either - they argue, they have opposing opinions and they want different things out of life, but it is their love which propels them in their hope to find somewhere where they can belong.
A Lover’s Discourse is inspired by Roland Barthes’ book, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which attempts to deconstruct what it means to fall in love. Barthes argues that modern society lacks the right language to discuss love and wishes his readers to analyse their own experiences of love, so that they can learn to love better. Adopting Barthes' argument as a central idea in this novel, Guo goes a step further by placing the protagonists in a contemporary setting where race, identity and belonging become additional barriers to how the lovers navigate their relationship. While I don’t believe it is necessary to have read Barthes’ book before reading Guo’s novel, there are numerous references to his book throughout so it might be worth doing a bit of research beforehand if you aren’t familiar with his work.
The book is split into eight sections and follows the couple on their experiences in England, China, Australia, Germany and Italy as they search for somewhere that feels like home. I believe I was most taken by the development of their romance and how as readers we are able to follow their entire journey: from their first time meeting, to moving in together, marriage and then becoming parents. Reading this book I felt as if I was a voyeur to the lives of these two people and I kinda loved it. This kind of narrative is incredibly rare and I believe it was witnessing this full arc of their relationship that made me feel so invested in its progression. The fact that the protagonists remained unnamed throughout the book also made it easier to place myself in the characters’ positions.
Our protagonist is a PhD student, studying how Chinese workers reproduce Western paintings and in turn exploring how slavery is at the heart of capitalist systems ‘where reproduction was the main engine’. I found it really interesting how, in her research, she discovers that the Chinese villagers have no interest in these Western classic paintings and have a purely pragmatic attitude when it comes to reproducing their works. In recognising that her examiners have not fully grasped the main argument behind her thesis, she exposes the differing attitudes of East and West. Guo’s father was a landscape painter and in this novel she manages to air some of her concerns surrounding the Western influence in China. In many ways the protagonists' relationship is representative of this wider struggle between East and West and this explains why they often struggle with communication and understanding each other’s cultures. It particularly irritated me how the husband would always pick out errors in the wife’s use of the English language. In general, I found him a lot less relatable than his wife, but maybe this is because we aren’t given his side of the story.
The husband in this novel feels as restless, if not more so, than his wife. He is an Australian-German-British landscape architect and feels claustrophobic in confined spaces. He wishes to have the freedom to roam, either through living on the canal or touring in a minivan, and hates feeling restricted by depressing, urban landscapes. It is predominantly through his ‘wanderlust’ that the couple move around so much and at times the reader is made to question whether it is his living space or the relationship that makes him feel this way.
I do feel at times the book’s emphasis on being literary came at the detriment to the narrative. I also wasn’t a massive fan of passages of dialogue being used at the beginning of each chapter and felt that it sometimes gave away what was to come later on in the chapter. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this book and believe that fans of character-driven, romance narratives will also find much to love about this one. Guo writes about the couple’s developing relationship sensitively and while I wouldn’t say that I’m a natural romance novel reader, this book enthralled me from start to finish.