Jade and Emerald

Michelle See-Tho

Jade and Emerald
Penguin Random House Australia
16 July 2024

Jade and Emerald

Michelle See-Tho

From the winner of the 2023 Penguin Literary Prize.

Lei Ling Wen is lonely. Bored of her demanding after-school schedule of tuition, study and violin lessons, she struggles to see eye to eye with her strict Chinese-Malaysian mother.

When Lei Ling is befriended by elegant, worldly socialite Gigi Nu, she is enchanted by the realm of luxury and freedom that suddenly opens up to her. Gigi encourages Lei Ling to flout her routines and treats her to desiger products and expensive meals, and soon Lei Ling finds herself caught between two lives, and increasingly at odds with her exasperated mother.

Then tragedy strikes, and Lei Ling discovers long-held secrets that lead her to question everything she thought she knew about the two central women in her life, and the friendship she'd held at the heart of it.

Jade and Emerald is a fierce and deeply felt novel about the joys and pains of growing up, of accepting who you are and where you come from.


In 2023 I was one of three booksellers who helped judge the Penguin Literary Prize, along with Penguin publisher Meredith Curnow and senior editor Kathryn Knight. This $20,000 prize has been running since 2018 and is awarded to an unpublished manuscript, and the winning manuscript from 2023 is published in book form by Penguin this month: Jade and Emerald by Melbourne debut author Michelle See‑Tho.

The story is set in a perfectly imagined late-1990s Melbourne, and is told through the eyes of Lei Ling Wen, the almost-teenaged daughter of a strict but intensely proud Chinese-Malaysian woman, who is working hard to raise her as a single parent. Lei Ling is under pressure from her mother to be both an obedient and an extraordinary daughter and is also struggling to fit in at school, and so many readers will relate to these dilemmas. The loneliness and yearning for acceptance at both home and school are beautifully and subtly described, as are her regular encounters with casual and overt racism. Lei Ling is in-between in all sorts of ways, and uncomfortable everywhere. But when the glamorous and wealthy Gigi Nu – the aunt of one of her classmates and key tormentors, Angel – enters the picture and sees potential in Lei Ling that seems lost on her mother, Gigi adopts Lei Ling as her protégée. Lei Ling begins to feel hope in the social acceptance and privilege that Gigi’s material wealth promises, but at the same time, she must tread a very difficult path that skirts painfully close to familial disloyalty.

This book speaks of a particular migrant experience in Australia but is at the same time a universal story of growing up, and gives voice to the deep desire to be elsewhere – and perhaps to be someone else entirely – that accompanies many (perhaps almost all?) journeys through adolescence. I was struck particularly by the way See‑Tho carefully uncovers the story of Lei Ling’s mother, and this thoughtful and well-paced aspect of the narrative is a reminder that it takes most children many years to realise that their parents have identities unrelated to them, and lived a whole life before they came along which makes them who they are.

I almost never have time to read a book more than once, but I was delighted to have had the chance to read See‑Tho’s vibrant writing again in its final form. Jade and Emerald is a warm and generously told story, and a fresh take on culture, class, identity, and belonging.

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