Book Review: But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is a vividly realised and compelling novel

But The Girl

Author and University of Melbourne lecturer Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is a writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Holding a PhD in Creative Writing, But The Girl, is her first novel. A deeply introspective and at times heavy read, the story transports us to the vibrant streets of London. Here, we encounter an Australian narrator of Chinese Malaysian heritage, a character known simply as “Girl,” who is embarking on a journey to a month-long artist residency in Scotland. The narrative’s fluidity emerges as Girl navigates this disorienting period, it’s a tale that predominantly unfolds within her inner world.

As Girl gracefully weaves between crafting her thesis on Sylvia Plath and the complexities of postcolonial literature — a concept she finds both distant and impressive — our voyage delves into the recesses of her consciousness and memories. Employing a meta-narrative structure, akin to a novel within a novel, and adorned with the rhythmic charm of Manglish, But The Girl unfurls at a leisurely pace, all the while propelled by the urgency of the themes and ideas it explores.

Within its pages, Yu eloquently dissects the legacy of second-generation immigration, the scourge of racism, the weight of intergenerational trauma, the reclamation of English from its colonial trappings, and the snares of academia. Her prose possesses a razor-sharp wit and dark humour that cut to the bone. Yu’s background as a poet prominently shines through in her vivid descriptions, enriching the narrative with keen insights and lyrical beauty.

But The Girl was far different to my usual preference- an easy, romantic comedy. But, this novel was unlike anything I have ever read and has definitely stuck with me long after the final page was flipped. Yu’s ability to make the reader empathise with Girl, even though you may be entirely different to her, was unmatched.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and highly recommend to enjoyers of The Idiot by Elif Batuman and Woman: Eating by Claire Khoda. I sincerely cannot wait to read what Yu publishes next, and will definitely be familiarising myself more with her previously published works in an attempt to fill the void that finishing this compelling novel has left me with.


But The Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is available now from Penguin Australia. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.