Books

Jessie Tu
A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing

We’re not even halfway through the first page of this book before Jena Lin, former child prodigy, is in a chapel closet furiously banging a fellow musician she only vaguely knows. In her mind she doesn’t refer to him by name, just by instrument: Bassoon. The sex is hungry and quick and anti-personal, and ends abruptly when they realise they are running late to perform at the funeral going on nearby. This opening scene – sex and emptiness and music all rolled into one – plunges readers into Jena’s world immediately and completely.

A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing is an engaging and ambitious debut novel, but at times it falls short of the high goals it sets itself. Although the plot is steady and addictive, it offers few surprises due to the occasionally heavy-handed foreshadowing dotted throughout.

Once a world-famous violinist, Jena burned out at the age of 15. Now, at 22, she has returned to music and is preparing to audition for a permanent spot in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. She is obsessive about her practice, pushing through pain and injury in the pursuit of perfection. In between her music she fills her time with sex, violence-tinged porn and fragile, anxious friendships.

The themes Jessie Tu takes on are important ones, tackling race, class, desire and power – and Jena is a compelling character. Her sexual encounters allow Tu to dissect notions of agency and power imbalance; there is sex as empowerment, as self-medication, as self-harm. Jena’s main relationship in the book is with a much older man, Mark. As a device it starts off strong – the novel’s ideas are delicately woven through most of the book – but Mark ultimately becomes too much of a caricature, an amalgamation of all the ills powerful men inflict upon women. This lack of faith in readers to understand the underlying intent is something that haunts the third act of the book; its themes are, at the 11th hour, hammered home a little too loudly.

None of this makes the book any less engrossing, however, and it is filled with ideas that need to be heard. The novel is at its strongest when Tu trusts in her subtleties and her readers. Jena’s relationship with music and performance in particular is extraordinarily well rendered, and the way this spills out and affects the people around her is believable and at times heartbreaking.

Elizabeth Flux

Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Jessie Tu, A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing".

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Reviewer: Elizabeth Flux

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