The work of Xiaolu Guo both plays with this globalization of literature and rebukes it ... Guo seems interested in describing distance rather than points of commonality, capturing an inability to talk rather than a global conversation. She has spoken out against the self-censorship caused by authoritarianism, but also the kind created by the demands of the market ... Guo’s novelistic writing is not particularly narrative, or linear, or uplifting. Her books do not privilege storyline but take a more documentary approach. She seems interested not in some sense of 'the world' but in a question of what it might mean to be international. The time we live in is not defined by a shared humanness but by the fact that no one is truly at home where they are ... This reserved filming keeps the viewer a step away from what she is seeing; we may feel a little like we’re attending a party where we don’t know anyone and are straining to put together who is who. Similarly, Guo’s writing preserves this remove through definitions and questions, reminding the reader that the language it is written in has been studied and learned ... Her own loneliness permeates the book. She is in a relationship, even in love, but often alone, wordless, unable to express what she wants.
Guo is an unsparing noticer. She paints a vivid but unflattering portrait of her new dwelling in her adopted country ... The truthfulness and accuracy of Guo’s language gives the book mischief and energy. There are shades of Lydia Davis in her carefully etched sentences as she details the ups and downs of the relationship without sentimentality ... What propels the book forward is in part the sense of suspense that hangs over the nascent relationship: Has our heroine made an enormous mistake getting together with an itchy-footed boat lover? But there’s also something compelling about the breadth of the world the narrator inhabits. The book moves briskly from the canals of North London to Scotland, Australia, Germany and China. Along the way, it’s capacious enough to touch on moments of real darkness, while somehow managing to be mordant, funny and, ultimately, life-affirming ... Guo gives her characters scope to live and suffer, so her book’s final affirmation has a hard-won quality that carries weight.
... a powerful portrait of our volatile political moment ... thoroughly original, a bracing portrayal of rootlessness in a divided nation ... 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 ... an intellectually stimulating gem, a timely novel that won’t feel any less beguiling as the years pass.