Jessica Zhan Mei Yu’s delightful debut novel, But the Girl, presents itself as a post-colonial homage to Sylvia Plath, as told through the perspective of Girl, whose name is never disclosed.
Beginning with a scholarship journey from Australia to England, Yu’s protagonist is an Asian Australian PhD student, trying to write about Sylvia Plath’s poetry, but struggling to get any work done. Initially, her frames of reference for identity are drolly categorised by passport colour, setting specific thematic intentions. Throughout the narrative, Girl’s identity moves from something fixed and externally imposed, to an ever-changing aspect of fluid interiority.
Girl doesn’t get much work done in England, but she does explore London, contemplating her past and present selves to paint an awkward history of polite anxiety and long-term overachieving.
From London, Girl flies to Scotland for a residency, in which she is the sole novelist among a cohort of visual artists. It is here she meets Clementine, whose easy charisma and quirky style set her apart from the rest of the group, most of whom the reader never really gets close to.
Clementine is framed as Girl’s antagonist, despite being the only person who genuinely tries to connect with her. Girl’s apparent inability to separate anger and love mirrors her fraught family relationships, illustrating hidden dynamics of entanglement, and the repetition of certain psychological patterns. There are subtle hints of Girl highlighting violence as an underlying aspect connected with affection, particularly in relation to female family members, and, more subtly, her semi-repressed emotional investment in Clementine.
Girl feels cheated when she doesn’t benefit from the residency as much as she thought she would, due to the implied invisible privilege of her supportive home environment. For the first time in her life, for example, Girl must wash her own clothes. She has less time to dedicate to the writing of her (possibly meta-referential) post colonial novel than she would have had at home with her family.
Through the thoughts and memories populating Girl’s inner monologue, the reader learns more about Girl’s absent family than any of the people she encounters during her travels. The ways in which Girl and her family define one another become part of their collective identity. This is reflected in the erasure of their names, replaced by language that communicates who they are in relation to one another. This shapes Girl’s sense of herself as an individual, which she must uncover. Whether her true self is hidden behind someone else’s words, or projected over someone else’s image, is up for debate, but either way her sense of self is irrevocably tied to that of her beloved family, multiple cultures and attachment to literary academic research.
Like many young people, Girl is preoccupied with her own perspectives, experiences and facets of identity, while simultaneously fixating on the opinions of others. These tendencies read like preconditions of being at the precipice of adulthood. Despite the moniker given her by the space she occupies in the minds of others, the protagonist is no girl, but a fully grown woman, struggling to achieve independence and self-reliance.
Yu’s beautiful writing contains some frilly phrases, but these feel more like an element of Girl’s characterisation rather than clumsy prose (‘…the water was as cold as a polite smile…’, ‘He looked at my breasts like they were low-hanging fruit…’).
The most wonderful aspect of this book is its constant commitment to intertextuality, which is by no means restricted to the work of Plath. Yu explores otherness through the context of race, place and perceived belonging, drawing from a delightful variety of literary sources.
But the Girl is an engaging coming of age story that is often funny, sometimes sad and always thoughtful. It will resonate most with burned-out students, emerging writers and people who find themselves othered by context.
But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
Publisher: Penguin, Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 224 pp
Release Date: 1 August 2023