If you are looking for the perfect book to binge over a weekend where it is just you, takeaway, and some wine this is the one to grab.
Jessie Tu’s debut novel is a perfectly ambitious saunter into the Australian literary scene. As far as I am concerned, Tu is quickly solidifying her place as a favoured author amongst readers. A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing is a novel that explores female power, success, sexuality and ultimately mundane existence. Our main character Jena is a professional—once prodigal—violinist, whose life is a constantly shifting balance between professional discipline and her nonchalant hookups.
The two parts of Jena’s life intersect when we first meet her fucking a basoon player in a closet at someone’s funeral. It is safe to say that this introductory scene had me hook, line and sinker. Some would consider it bold, but in fairness I think it is realistic. Okay, realistic might be an exaggeration; but surely majority people have been in a sticky (pardon the pun) situation that acts as the first juncture to an onslaught of novel-worthy events. Not only does this first scene grab the reader, but it perfectly encapsulates our main character in as many three paragraphs.
Tu continually toys with the idea of “a lonely girl” through Jena but I think, ultimately, she leaves it to the reader to decide who this is dangerous to—herself or others?
In the first line of the blurb the word void is used and I think it is an extremely interesting choice. For many readers, this idea of “emptiness” is the first idea of the book they get. It is clear to me that this was intentional to mislead and stir the reader’s ideas of what this story is going to be about. By definition void simply means empty, however modern connotations of this word lean towards most negative ideas—especially when associated with women. When women are described as filling a void it is often in the sense that they are lacking, or trying to make up for something missing in their lives. It is not often seen as the beneficial and enriching choice being made by a woman. Anything a person does could be for the sake of filling a void; an effort to avoid boredom, to distract oneself from a habit they are trying to break, to try something new for fun.
In A Lonely Girl, we know that Jena used to be a prodigy in the world of violin. She thrived off the success and achievements that this brought her. Whilst still an extremely talented musician as an adult, we know she is not at the height of her fame any longer. Here we have her “void.” Now, she thrives off sexual exchange and transactional relationships with men. Sex is power to Jena and while not every transaction is as gratifying as it could be she enjoys the thrill of being desirable.
“It feels more powerful to be desired than to desire. There is safety in being wanted. No risk in being the desired.”
Being desirable can mean a lot of things. You have access to those who desire you in a way that is limited to few but also you have control over your role in the relationship. As the ‘desired’ it is easy to say no, or remove oneself from a situation if they wish. This distance allows Jena the freedom to dictate the trajectory of her relationships and mediate what they offer her. In this case, Jena’s loneliness is dangerous to others around her, because her decided disconnect is a power she gave herself, and one she can inflict on others.
However, when Jena meets Mark, a much older and apparently world-wise man, Jena’s loneliness at times seems self destructive. It is hard to decipher the nature of this relationship.
“Being with Mark stops the sadness that creeps up on me when I am alone… Mark helps me forget all of my inadequacies.”
Is this relationship something Jena truly wants? Is Mark using her, or vice-versa? It seems that Mark is a distraction for Jena and she thrives, once again, on being desired by this man. Their relationship did not sit well with me, at times I felt like I wanted to shake Jena and questions why she is putting herself through this relationship, but as is with most things in this book, the reason she does anything is to feel a sense of personal gratification in some way.
“I wonder if he might accidentally kill me one day.”
At times I found it hard to understand how Jena can come away from certain experiences and be okay or at best feel satisfied with her choices. I know I wouldn’t have made the same choices, despite having at times felt very similar emotions to Jena. But the point of fiction at times, for me at least, is to pose situations not too distant from our reality that force us to not only think differently but to ACCEPT that difference exists in this world. Jena’s best friend Olivia confronts her lifestyle saying:
“You just fuck people because you can’t make them like you any other way.”
I found this to be quite jarring because I distinctly felt this way before. It is clear that there is an element of sex = attention/admiration in Jena’s actions but Olivia’s accusatory tone is what kind of drew me out of my previous way of thinking. Ultimately, what is wrong with fucking people just because they like you that way and you enjoy that kind of attention? While unapologetic women are making their way into the forefront of society we still have an extremely long way to go before we don’t have to argue the point to people about why being a ‘slut’ isn’t a bad thing. I can ponder the why’s of Jena’s choices and if she is okay, but both in a fictional world and reality we will never get these answers. So if you can’t expect to know why in real life, why should an author be expected to give it to us fictionally?
Tu challenges the stereotypical ‘young woman figuring herself out’ narrative here because in A Lonely Girl it looks like everything in Jena’s life is in shambles — but isn’t it always? Despite this, Jena is just coping and getting on, trying to do the best she can. No dramatics, no disasters, no crazy moments of realisation. This book is rife with mundane acceptance and proving that just doing whatever the hell you want to do won’t spark the end of the world but in fact it might foster a new one.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing
By Jessie Tu
304 pages. 2020.