- A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, by Jessie Tu. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
Have you ever wondered about child prodigy musicians? Like, for example, a nine-year-old violin soloist who plays with an international orchestra with as much technical skill and accomplishment as an adult. Where does such brilliance come from? Pushy parents? A knowledgeable teacher? Natural talent? And what is the cost to the child? What sort of adult do you become after famous beginnings? How do success and failure shape us and break us?
These questions are tackled by Jessie Tu in her intimate and confronting debut novel A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing. Through the eyes of Jena Chung, a young violinist who was once a child prodigy, Jessie Tu shows us the lives of professional musicians in Sydney and New York. She takes us into their world: carrying us through rehearsals, auditions and rivalry. The shifting partnerships and friendships. The sexual liaisons. Hours spent practising. The injuries. The visits to the physio. The wild parties. Drunkenness. Ambition. Competition. Regret. Self-abuse.
Jena is a stellar violinist who lost the glitter of her illustrious childhood career after a breakdown in her teens. Now, she's living in Sydney trying to patch up her life as a musician. She has an awkward relationship with her parents and violin teacher. There's embedded history and significant baggage.
At age 15, she performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in New York. But where is she now? She has difficulty with friendships. But with men, she can't help herself: she wants sex. She's attracted and available to them, and they are attracted to her. Sex assuages her loneliness and makes her feel valued for something other than music. But she lacks self-respect: "I let him do what he wants to me because I don't want to spend another night alone." And it's clear her obsession with sex overlies a deeper sense of inadequacy and insecurity.
Jena wants a long-term relationship, but she doesn't. She discards men like autumn leaves. She uses them and they use her. This fits with the unspoken currency of the orchestra. Brief liaisons. Priming the visiting conductor. But where do you draw the line? Is it excusable to sleep with the partner of a friend? How much can you delude yourself about your reasons for doing this? Is it the conquest? A need for intimacy? A way to feel something? But while sex gives Jena power, it also destroys things. Especially friendship.
Jena behaves like a yo-yo. One moment she wants fame, the next, she's shunning it. She practises madly for an audition, but wrecks herself with alcohol and sex the night before. She wants friends, but can't quite manage to be loyal. Then she meets Mark, an older man who belongs to someone else. Is he what she's been looking for?
There's also the issue of race. Jena is Asian, and often feels categorised by men. She's also a woman, and this impacts her music too: "No-one here tonight will write about my work with the seriousness given to a man. Or somebody older. Or somebody white."
The narrative smacks of lived experience. Tu obviously knows the world of music. She was a violinist herself for 15 years, so it's likely the verisimilitude comes from her own close observations. You'd have to live the life of a musician to write so convincingly: "He conducts the way most conductors do ... Moving their torsos too much ... They seldom seem to understand that less is more." And, when playing the violin: "My arms feel weightless yet heavy at the same time. Like I could caress the cheek of a newborn with one hand, while lifting a car with the other." Tu has clear insight into the technical side of music, and she understands musician-teacher relationships. She also sheds light on driving ambition, the role of parents, and the fine line between excellence, cruelty and punishment.
This is an absorbing novel. The writing is fresh and energetic, and we feel Jena's suffering, even as we judge her for promiscuity and lack of morals. The sex scenes are graphic and confronting, but this is the point. Tu wants us to close our eyes and wince. She wants us to ask what has brought her protagonist to this, and whether she will ever be able to repair fractured relationships. Or will she have to start anew? But is there ever a clean slate or truly fresh beginning?
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing immerses the reader in a world of "minor-key despair", of job insecurity, scales and music, of lives crisscrossing with other artists. It explores so many facets of musicianship. The technicalities of playing. Practice. The anatomy of failure. Loneliness. Isolation. Self-punishment.
The journey of readjustment after a glittering roller-coaster ride of childhood fame. We have to wait till the end to fully understand what has happened to her. This is a raw and illuminating book. Highly recommended.
- Karen Viggers is the internationally best-selling author of The Orchardist's Daughter.