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Since moving back to Australia, I have tried to read more literature from Australian authors. Getting books in English was already one challenge, and then getting Australian authors was another issue. In saying that, I have been enjoying reading more Aussie books and there is so much talent here!
I was drawn to Jessie Tu’s book as someone who went through a Bachelor of Music majoring in performance. I was curious to see how she wrote about studying classical music in Australia, but also just the pressure of studying music in general. And all I can say is that I was not disappointed.
Jena Lin, the protagonist of the novel, was a young violin prodigy who rose to early fame and then was burntout by the time she was a teenager. Jena’s experience of the pressure to succeed and perform in music is not uncommon – prodigy or not. The hours of practice are grueling – I remember practicing six or seven hours a day leading up to my final recital for my music degree. Music, for better or worse, becomes Jena’s life and is for a long time the only way she can find some sort of warped sense of validation.
Music is an expensive pursuit too. Most instruments require accompanists with whom you must practice regularly (and it is not free). Lessons, which are at a minimum weekly can cost well into the hundreds if you are an advanced student. It means that music, especially at this high level is extremely exclusive and exclusionary. Even if you manage to make your way into a program like a classical music degree, the extra costs are crippling for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Jena, because of her prodigal status becomes a favourite of her teachers and the world opens to her in ways that only other music students could dream of. There is sometimes tension with her fellow musicians about opportunities and this is something that I think all musicians battle with throughout their careers. The competition is forced on students and there can be very little sense of camaraderie, especially if you play the same instrument as someone. You vie for the same spots, the same roles, the same scholarships. So the lines between friends and competition can blur and harm relationships. I think this sense of competition over community is one of the things that isolates Jena so much.
Like all greats, the pursuit of perfection above all else seems to cripple Jena at times. Whether this is pressure from her mother, her teachers, or even herself, she holds herself to extremely high standards and the personal cost this has on Jena is heartbreaking.
I think one of the ways that Jena tries to battle with this pressure of success as well as her identity more broadly, is seen in the relationships she has with different men throughout the novel. Some of these men take on the role of a somewhat boyfriend figure, and some are just one night stands. The disregard with which these men treat Jena is palpable. It makes me think of The Perks of Being a Wall Flower – “We accept the love we think we deserve”, and I think Jena struggles to see her value beyond being a performer. I think though, the pressure to succeed and only being seen as a prodigal violinist and nothing more, are only some of what troubles Jena.
Her experiences as an Asian woman in Australia shape her experiences. I get the feeling that many of the men who sleep with Jena do so not just because she is available, but because there is a fetishisation of Asian women. I think Jena struggles to understand her identity and value outside of whiteness. Especially when whiteness, in Australia and many other colonised countries, is considered the norm. Although Jena struggles with this throughout the novel, finding herself and therefore her identity not as it might be defined through whiteness is the catalyst of her journey. However, I want to stress that Jena’s decolonisation journey isn’t a perfect narrative arch with endless self-love and rainbows at the end of the novel.
Tu’s novel joins the ranks of what many are calling millennial fiction. There is awkward sometimes horrible sex. There is a palpable transience explored through share houses, temporary and casual jobs, along with a general fear that is often felt by many millennials and other young people today – that the previous milestones attributed to a successful life are crumbling at our feet.
Buy your copy of Jessie Tu’s novel from Booktopia here.
Buy your copy of Jessie Tu’s novel from Book Depository here.
What millennial literature are you enjoying at the moment? What Australian authors should I read next? As always, share the reading love.