The Honeyeater by Jessie Tu

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Jessie Tu’s debut novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, presented an author who is remarkable in her wide ranging talent.  Her second book, The Honeyeater, does not disappoint. There is the same narrative brilliance and quiet intensity, relating the story of Fay, a translator bringing a modern English novel to Chinese.

Fay, a Taiwanese Australian, is attached to Sydney University, mentored by Professor Samantha Egan-Smith, and focusing on the translation of ‘Naan’ by a young deceased Australian/Indian author.  Translation, Fay believes, should build the new and the common. Others maintain that it highlights differences between each culture.

The opening section of The Honeyeater is a holiday, a trip to Paris with Fay and her mother. This is acutely observed, both in the undercurrents between the pair as well as the experience of travelling in a popular tourist destination. Her mother is comical in her protective measures towards her daughter, her rigid beliefs, and insular outlook. Jessie Tu’s portrayal of her is nonetheless caring and respectful.

The Professor is an enigmatic character. At times she is encouraging and supportive, but emerges as ambitious to the point of being ruthless, even cruel.  She is married to James, another eminent translator, who is not only celebrated internationally, but is also a man who exudes excessive confidence and charm.

He and Fay pursue a clandestine affair which clouds the relationship she has with The Professor.

Betrayal is a significant factor in The Honeyeater. It underlines the dynamic tension between the three and to a minor degree mother and daughter. It is the Professor who almost casually undermines what Fay had regarded as a solidly respectful working arrangement. Her awareness of her mentor’s treachery is shocking in that it is completely unapologetic.

She knows now that their relationship is reduced to merely a ruthless and determined coach versus a reluctant protégée/athlete.

The intensity of the exchange between the two women reaches a new depth with conflicting emotions released when Fay is exposed as being the ‘honeyeater’ whom James had carelessly allowed to be known to his wife. This too is a form of betrayal.

The sudden death of James sends ripples that are a catalyst for the drama to evolve in new and different ways. Fay’s predicament increases in complexity. Like a swimming swan, she glides through each confronting episode, turmoil swirling beneath the surface as she strives to process it all.

There is much more to the book than this….there is the fascinating detail of the translator’s role and its challenges.

Minor characters like Alain and his famous writer/father are part of the dramatic conclusion in Taipei. The city itself is glimpsed with Fay’s desperate journey to make her presentation at the conference. Jessie Tu, with a Taiwanese background, brings a special vividness to this.

I admired A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing enormously. The Honeyeater cements Jessie Tu as one of the most exciting young writers to have appeared in recent times. It will be a pleasure to watch her progress and  I await her next book, expecting to be enthralled again by her clarity, narrative style and insight into human behaviour, which on occasion can have the dimensions of a thriller.

The Honeyeater


by Jessie Tu

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176147 074 5

$32.99; 336pp


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