But the Girl

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

But the Girl
Penguin Random House Australia
1 August 2023

But the Girl

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

'I used to have this line I saved and brought out for grant applications and writers festivals - that having been Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina and Esther Greenwood all my life, my writing was an opportunity for the reader to have to be me.'

Girl is spending the spring at an artist's residency in Scotland. Far from her home in Australia and her tight-knit Malaysian family, she is meant to be writing a postcolonial novel and working on a PhD on the poetry of Sylvia Plath. But she can't stop thinking about her upbringing and the stories of her parents and grandmother who raised her. How can she reconcile their dreams for her with her lived reality? Did Sylvia Plath have this problem? What even is a 'postcolonial novel'? And what if the story of becoming yourself is not about carving out a new identity but learning to understand the people who shaped you?

A novel about belonging, alienation, and the exquisite pleasure and pain of girlhood, But the Girl is a wry and razor-sharp coming-of-age novel for readers of The Idiot by Elif Batuman and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner.


But the Girl is the latest in a series of Australian writers using fiction to tackle family history and legacy skilfully. It’s as much about the present state of the creative and academic world as it is about the past and the conditions that brought ‘Girl’ and her family to where they are now. Our protagonist, known only as ‘Girl’, is a PhD student, en route to Scotland for an artist’s residency. On this retreat, she is supposed to write an immigrant, or post-colonial novel, as she pitches it to her supervisor – ‘immigrant’ doesn’t have the same academic allure. She’s dedicated her entire life to academia, specifically the works of Sylvia Plath, a decision she’s constantly reckoning with throughout the novel. Plath is bold, assured, dazzling and vulnerable, all things that Jessica Zhan Mei Yu herself emulates, but Girl is burdened by.

Girl is a Chinese-Malaysian immigrant living with her family in Melbourne. As the story goes, her mother held on tight to her pelvic muscles the day they immigrated to Australia to ensure that Girl would have the privileges of this country. These decisions, ambitions and, ultimately, expectations, embody the desperation and hard work to get Girl to where she is today, but also trap her and plague her every choice. Australia is cruel and academia crueller. Despite being free at last on her residency, Girl can do anything but write, instead drifting back home through memories of her family and the works of Plath.

Yu has created a love and hate letter to academia, to the labour of being a woman of colour in creative industries, and to the intricate webs of sorrows and joys spun by families. But the Girl is a contemporary novel at its finest: witty and seemingly meandering, but deeply poignant and skilful in its dissection.

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