The opening scene of this book depicts a furtive coupling in the chapel closet at a funeral. It’s tawdry and it’s emotionless. It also sets the tone of the book. This book has a lot of sex in it. And by a lot, I mean every few pages.
As disturbing as this book is, I also found it riveting. I was equally horrified/fascinated.
Jena Lin was a child prodigy. A violin virtuoso. She would practice until her fingers bled. Forget to eat. Not want to sleep. Going to school kept her away from her instrument. Her solace and torment. She would live and breathe through it. It was an extension of herself, and the only way she knew to express herself. It would also prove to be her undoing.
”Every second away from the violin made me anxious.”
Fast forward a few years, and Jena is now twenty-three, a soloist playing for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Trying to move on from her spectacular breakdown on stage at Carnegie Hall at the age of fourteen. Truth be told, Carnegie Hall sounds pretty damned daunting at any age, let alone as a teen. But can you ever really leave your childhood behind, or is this a part of you that you always carry around?
People have various addictions. Jena's is she sleeps around. Indiscriminately. I couldn’t believe she kept finding herself in one dire sexual encounter after another. It certainly wasn’t intimacy she was getting, it was simply a physical act to fill a void. And usually not very satisfying. There is such a dull sadness in this book. As if she’s going through the motions. And while she’s actively seeking these encounters, I simply could not understand why she’d want to have anything to do with some of these men, let alone allow them to touch her, or use her for her sex. They were repellent. Case in point “Women are like...I’m working my way through the menu.” (current bedmate says of working his way through women of the world). What???? Did I read that? Do grown men really think that? Ok, maybe some do, but to say it? I pulled a face as if I’d bitten into a lemon when I read this. It’s repulsive. And more than a little uncomfortable.
Though truth be told, our protagonist is no better. That she is promiscuous is putting it mildy. She also seems to have her own status code when deciding who to sleep with next.
"'What does he do?'
'I don't know. Does it matter?'
'I don't want to fuck a plumber.'
'Jesus Christ, you're worse than a racist.'
'My prejudices don't need a label.'"
Set mainly in Sydney, I recognized many of the places Ms.Tu described. The essence and tone of the various parts of the city are deftly captured. From the leafy, monied tranquility of the North Shore, to the gritty trendiness of inner city Newtown, the beautiful people of Bondi, to the sheer magic and aura of the Sydney Opera House. Just as the city has such diverse qualities, so do its inhabitants.
Jena is a driven, obsessive character. Full of opposites. On the one hand, she's obviously a musical genius who can create magic. But the same drive that creates her talent is what seems to destroy her privately. Her personal life is dark, incredibly so. It’s as if she wants to completely lose - or even destroy herself - through meaningless encounters. Some more dangerous than others. In many respects, it was as if her sexual partners were just a conveyor belt of body parts. It was mechanical, purely physical, and not necessarily enjoyable either. In fact, it seemed the worse the sex, the better Jena felt for it. As though it somehow absolved something within her that she was not happy with. To say Jena is one hot mess is an understatement.
”Everything I did with these men was... a contradiction between my public and private life; a chasm between Jena Lin, darling Australian violinist...and Jena Lin, raging sex addict.”
Moving to New York for a few months after winning an internship with the NY Philharmonic Orchestra (effectively returning to the scene of the crime, being the city where she had her breakdown as a teen), not much changes. More meaningless sex. Only the accents are different.
”I crave the attention of men. It feels more powerful to be desired than to desire. There’s safety in being wanted. No risk in being the desired.”
As the story progresses, we learn about Jena’s complex relationship with her parents. Her Mum being a typical “show biz” parent. Supervising her spectacular rise and fall on the classical concert circuit as a youngster. Her Dad is effectively kept out of the loop, and becomes somewhat estranged. He’s not part of the three headed monster that is Jena, her mother and Banks, her violin teacher.
Making friends isn’t easy for Jena either. Always the outsider. The smart Asian kid. The polite Asian kid. The super striving, ultra performing Asian kid. Does this sound rude? It should. It’s meant to. Because this book shows the ugly side of the preconceptions we have of each other, even in the amazing melting pot that is Oz, where everybody comes from somewhere else. We still assign (often subconsciously) certain racial stereotypes to people. Whether or not they’re deserved or even correct.
But what really stood out is the theme of loneliness. Unrelenting, empty, mind numbing loneliness. It’s mentioned over and over. It’s tough reading this. We’ve all been there, though hopefully with less explosive results.
” ‘I was just...lonely.’
‘To be lonely is to want too much. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t mean you should let people hurt you. You know that now, right?’ ”
Did I like the main character, Jena? No. Did I understand her? Not at all. In fact, I don't think any of the characters had any redeeming features. They all seemed to exist in their own bubble, which would occasionally burst on bumping into another. With varying levels of secretive goings on and selfishness. Reading this made me realise, yet again, we really have no clue what's going on in another person's life. We see what others allow us to see. It's all smoke and mirrors.
There really aren’t any winners in this book. Each of the characters displays signs of varying degrees of doubt, jealousy and anxiety. The need to control events around them, in an attempt to feel they are in control of their lives and their feelings. Without really doing too great a job of either.
This book confronts topics of relationships, friendships and sexuality head on. There's nowhere to hide. It's brutal in its honesty. It also brings to the fore ideas of status and race, do we innately ascribe to certain scripts assigned to us by society, or is this simply part of ourselves that we’re unable to change?
Reading about child prodigies is new to me, as is a book about the Sydney Symphony and New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The inner workings - backstage, rehearsals, gala dinners, benefit nights, rivalries - were fascinating. Like all industries, there is politics. Both spoken and unspoken.
While I didn’t care for Jena, I found myself softening to her somewhat as the pages drew to a close. There seemed to be the slightest shift in her personality. Slighter than a breeze. The ending had me completely perplexed. How could it end this way? Just when I thought I knew which direction it was heading in. No neat endings tied with a pretty bow here. As much I wanted the ending to be cut and dried, because I felt Jena may have turned a corner, this was a great technique. To leave it as unfinished, to have you thinking, and pondering what the ending could be. A lot like life really. Those endless sliding door moments. What if, what if. I’m sure each of us who’s read this book has a different take on where Jena ends up.
Disturbing, tick. Confronting, tick. Baffling, tick. Original, tick, tick, tick.
This is the debut novel for Jessie Tu, and well done to her for such a bold and unusual story. I feel she is a writer that’s going places. She’s not afraid to delve into the darker parts of our hearts and minds.
I'm surprised that while this made it to the Stella Prize longlist, it didn't make it through to the shortlist. I'd have thought that something so edgy would have made the cut. Perhaps it was just too edgy for comfort.
The novel opens with the protagonist, Jena, having sex inside a chapel closet. Very graphic, no punches pulled, and you get the feeling that this novel is going to be like this the entire way through. The reason for this hot sex, Jena “felt sorry for him”.
“The kind of pity that was entirely self-serving.”
This also gives us a little insight into Jena’s character.
It must be said that Jena loves casual sex almost as much as she loves the violin. When a friend of Jena’s tells her to steer clear of a guy, he is a serial f***er. Jena replies,
“But so am I”.
But is it the physical act of sex or the feeling of being desired and the resulting feeling of power that Jena loves? The same feeling of power that she feels when she is loved by the audience. Yes, you could say that Jenna is self-absorbed. But, like her gift of playing the violin, was Jena born with this feeling?
Jena is a 22-year-old Asian/Australian violin player. But not just any violin player. Jena was a child prodigy and loved being in the spotlight. Perhaps why she is so self centered.
To say Jena was obsessed with the violin as a child would be a grave understatement. During practice sessions, which Jena could not get enough of, her mother would have to remind her to eat. Even short breaks to go to the toilet were an annoyance. Her obsession became so great that she was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder but refused to take any medication fearing it may affect her performance. She begins to believe that the violin defines her, and without it she would be nothing, a nobody.
Both Jena and her best friend, Olivia, are auditioning for a permanent place in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Problem is there is only one spot available, so her life is basically practicing every waking moment of the day, that is when she isn’t having sex.
When Jena is called upon to stand in for a violinist who missed their flight, her thoughts immediately return to when she was fifteen and performing the same Beethoven piece. A performance she never finished, a performance she literally walked out on.
So, what happened? Why is a child prodigy who performed solo all over the world now auditioning for a place in the Orchestra?
Jena was a child prodigy with the violin, but Tu’s exploration of this theme could apply to any talent. What it is like for the child. The demands, the attention, always in the spotlight. It must influence the young mind. The golden gift so many times turning into the dark curse.
Tu also explores, very graphically, the life of a sex addict. When Jena isn’t playing or practicing the violin, she is either having sex or thinking about it. If graphic sex and profanity offend, then do not read this book. No need for a warning though it starts right from the first page.
If you can get past all the sex, then you will find a fascinating character in Jena. The novel is pretty much all about her and how she deals with her life. It is somewhat a paradox that much of her life she has been in the spotlight, the eyes of the world watching, and yet she is crippled with loneliness.
What is interesting is why Jena is a sex addict. Is it just the physical pleasure? Is it the feeling of empowerment, the need to be desired? If she were not a child prodigy would this change or negate her addiction? Is her prodigious talent the cause or does she simply use sex to assuage the loneliness?
Another point that was constantly in the back of my mind while reading this, is would peoples opinion change if Jena were male? Will male and female perspectives on Jena’s character be different? A morally corrupt character is morally corrupt, regardless of sex. It should make no difference, but I am sure it will.
Jena is a horrible character, she thinks only of herself, never stopping to worry about friends or family. She is totally absorbed with herself and her life, and yet regardless of what makes Jena who she is, regardless of her moral character, regardless of her gift and talent, she is a wonderful character to read and ponder on. Put succinctly Jena is the novel.
Jessi Tu was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Sydney at age five. She has written for The Guardian, LA Review of Books and many literary journals. She trained as a classical violinist for more than fifteen years, has taught at numerous secondary schools and now works as a journalist. Her first collection of poems, You Should Have Told Me We Had Nothing Left, was published in 2018. This is her debut novel.
Nat and I both gave this 4 stars giving Jussie Tu's debut novel a 8 out of 10.