Jena Lin was a child prodigy; now, in her early twenties, she uses sex to fill the void left by fame. Jena is still a musician, her professional life taking her from practice to rehearsal and back again. But once a solo violinist who traveled the world, she now finds herself auditioning for a position in an orchestra.
And then there is her personal life—now back in her hometown of Sydney, Jena navigates her parents, a strict and extraordinary upbringing, her Asian heritage and the men in her life. Often the two—the personal and the professional—are intertwined. A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing opens with Jena in a chapel closet with a bassoon player she’s known since the Young Performer Awards; they are late to take their places in an orchestra performing at a funeral.
In her debut novel, Jessie Tu (herself a classical violinist) writes a character that is sharp, intense and bold. There is also a directness to Jena, a lack of sugar-coating that perhaps comes from the years of feedback and criticism on her music. But it is this straightforwardness that makes Tu’s writing all the more arresting. Of Jena’s mother, Tu writes:
During the week, she volunteers at a soup kitchen and occasionally helps the local church with bookkeeping. Her life is filled with small tasks. Mine is filled with practise, rehearsals and performance. [Her violin teacher] had a theory that everyone is born with a special frequency we either find very early on and stay with or move away from the older we get. My tuning went off when I was fifteen and I’ve spent the last seven years trying to find it again.
As Jena’s life and her ambitions unfold in her daily schedule of violin and hooking up, Tu paints a picture of Jena’s past. By six, she was playing Beethoven, Mozart, Shostakovitch and Brahms; two years later, she had outgrown her teacher in Sydney and would fly to Shanghai with her mother every fortnight, leaving on a Friday night and returning Sunday evening (Jena adds: “We could afford it because my father fixed a lot of people’s teeth.”).
Jena becomes a concert violinist touring and performing around the world until a breakdown forces her to stop completely. With her father she decamps to Wayne, New Jersey. She is 17 and it is in Wayne where she discovers sex; she creates a taxonomy of the men she sleeps with, and while she may have put down the violin, it is never far from her mind.
I liked being told I was an animal. I liked the idea of being an animal because I knew I wasn’t. I knew I was much more than an animal. I knew I was one of the best violinists in the world.
Jena’s acerbic observations are applied to a number of other subjects and while family, relationships, friendship and fame are some of the book’s underlying themes, Jena’s Asian heritage also plays a role. She is aware of being an outsider (and not just because she was a child prodigy); on the opening page as she’s having sex with the bassoon player she thinks back to the competition they met at when they were 10 and notes that they were the only two Asians who had made it to the finals that year, unusually, she thinks because “usually we dominate the podium.”
But at several points Tu moves outside of Jena’s personal heritage and also addresses the lack of diversity in the arts. In small moments, often as part of Jena’s daily conversations (at one point she is asked why she racializes everything), these offer an opportunity for reflection. In one scene, Jena and her friend Olivia are racing to make a rehearsal at the Opera House. They’ve both received an email that the chief conductor is ill and a replacement for the year will be found.
Olivia goes on and on. Says that they must know diversity is important.
“They don’t,” I say. “That’s why they’ve only ever chosen men.”
“They must know.”
“Olivia, when was the last time you saw a black person in the Opera House?”
Tu’s writing is a mix of daring direct boldness and, at times, a quieter voice that can be even bolder. Her writing is sharp and stripped back; the soloist shines.