Authors, great books and the stories behind them

They say everyone has a book inside them. Whether or not it should be written is debatable – “inside” is, Christopher Hitchens once quipped, “exactly where I think it should in most cases remain”. Regardless, the aphorism underlines an obvious truth: that people and their lives are full of fascinating stories. 

Read my Good Weekend column on Better Reading’s Stories Behind the Story podcast.

Mission abort: the need to legalise abortion

screen-shot-2016-08-11-at-7-38-03-pm-e1470908348692

In my wayward years as a medical student, I did a month-long placement at a large hospital in Shanghai. Early in the second week, in the general surgical ward, we saw a woman who was scheduled for surgery to fix a hernia. For female patients with gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s standard practice to ask questions about their reproductive history.

“How many children have you had?” asked the doctor we were shadowing.

“One,” she replied. “A son.”

“Have you had any abortions?”

“Yes,” she said.

“How many?”

“Seven.”

He nodded, translated, and then proceeded to examine her abdomen, while we foreign students exchanged shocked glances.

A medical history of multiple abortions isn’t uncommon, the doctor later told us, particularly for women in rural areas – including this patient – who are less likely to have access to contraception or sex education. In China, abortion is not a controversial topic. The procedure is a legal and government-provided service, hospitals advertise their servicespublicly, and the right to abortion is nowadays not largely seen as morally problematic.

In the self-proclaimed progressive West, women’s bodies and their rights to choose have become a moral battleground. Those in the anti-abortion camp invoke the sanctity of life and make emotive appeals that conflate existence with intent. All babies want to be born, pro-lifers argue. No matter that at least 98 percent of terminations are performed by 20 weeks, and consciousness is accepted as arising around the 24-week mark, when the brain’sthalamocortical connections develop. Christians inevitably cite God as the only rightful giver and taker of life, forgetting that centuries ago the Catholic church tacitly permitted abortions and only began anti-abortion campaigning in the 1800s.

When it comes to the legality and availability of abortion, moral debate should play no part in practical implications. All evidence points to the fact that women have abortions whether they’re legal or not. “Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates,” reports the World Health Organization. When you look globally, the abortion rate in countries where the procedure is illegal is 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Compared to the rate in countries where abortion is available on request (34 per 1,000), there’s no statistically meaningful difference.

One effect that restrictive abortion laws do have is to drive women to perform dangerous, often medically unsupervised procedures. When the procedure was legalised in South Africa in 1997, for example, the annual number of abortion-related deaths fell by 91 percent between 1994 and 1998–2001. A close friend of mine, Louise*, who is a nurse and aid worker, once saw a patient in a hospital in Uganda, a majority-Christian country where abortion is outlawed. The girl, aged 12, had been raped, fallen pregnant, and then perforated her uterus while trying to abort her own foetus.

Given the clear correlation between abortion’s legality and safety, it’s perplexing that abortion still isn’t legal Australia-wide. Comparatively speaking, access to abortion services is relatively unrestricted, and cases as horrifying as the Ugandan girl’s are certainly rare. Yet women and doctors can technically be convicted under criminal law in Queensland and New South Wales; the laws in these two states are based on century-old legislature. A Queensland woman was actually charged in 2009 for procuring her own abortion, and faced up to seven years in jail. (At trial, a jury acquitted in less than an hour, no doubt a relief after months of publicity).

While doctors in Queensland and NSW can lawfully perform abortions if they believe a woman’s physical or mental health is in serious danger, the technical illegality is a disincentive to doctors and creates access problems for women who are disadvantaged or living in rural areas. Earlier this year, a 12-year-old Queensland girl was only allowed to have an abortion after a ruling from a Supreme Court judge, despite the fact that she and her parents had consented, and that five different doctors had also recommended the procedure in her case.

Of the estimated 10,000 to 14,000 abortions in Queensland each year, only 1  percent are performed in public hospitals. Private healthcare is expensive, and abortions shouldn’t be limited to the privileged. Louise, my aid worker friend, had an abortion in Brisbane a few years ago. “I paid $550 for my procedure,” she told me. At the time, she was a full-time student and also worked in the evenings to cover costs. She had fallen pregnant despite using two forms of contraception, which is not uncommon. The experience “was the first time I felt trapped as woman. It makes you want to blame yourself.” While she was supported and fortunate in her decision, “money should never be an impacting factor in your access to healthcare,” she told me. “That there are women in Australia who can’t afford to get an abortion horrifies me.”

Currently, the Queensland parliament is debating a bill that would amend the Queensland Criminal Code. Both major parties have agreed to allow a conscience vote, which if passed would decriminalise abortion. Earlier this year, Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi released a draft amendment bill for NSW, which also seeks to establish 150-metre safe access zones around abortion clinics – zones that are already mandatory in Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania. Many clinics are targeted by anti-abortion groups. Sydneysiders, for example, may be familiar with the clinic on Devonshire Street in Surry Hills, outside which vocal and occasionally violent protestors have gathered for decades.

The practice of abortion dates back millennia. In a 1954 study of abortion in 350 ancient and pre-industrial societies, anthropologist Georges Devereux concluded that there “is every indication that abortion is an absolutely universal phenomenon…it is impossible even to construct an imaginary social system in which no woman would ever feel at least compelled to abort.”

Women will continue obtaining or inducing abortions irrespective of opinion, religion or lawfulness. The best way of ensuring their safety while doing so is to provide universal access to reproductive healthcare by legalising abortion.

*name has been changed

Image: Morre Christophe


This article was originally published on Feminartsy.

The trickster as healer: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

This review was originally published by Electric Literature.

***

Ted Hughes: distinguished poet, former Poet Laureate of Great Britain, widower of two wives lost to suicide, the first of whom was American poet Sylvia Plath. What more could possibly be written about Hughes and his oeuvre that hasn’t already been discussed by innumerable critical essays, biographies and feminist polemic?

The existing volume of published criticism is no deterrent for Hughes scholars, such as the father character in Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, the character, who is only referred to as “Dad,” spends much of the novel preoccupied by Hughes and his poetry.

Of particular interest to the father is the 1970 collection, Crow, Hughes’ best-known work after Birthday Letters. In the collection, Hughes draws upon numerous world mythologies and constructs the eponymous character, Crow, as a trickster. Explaining the character’s genesis in a  , Hughes said: “As the protagonist of a book, a crow would become symbolic in any author’s hands. And a symbolic crow lives a legendary life. That is how Crow took off.”

In Porter’s hands, the character Crow does become symbolic. Grief is the Thing with Feathers reimagines Hughes’ bird not only as a trickster, but also as a babysitter and healer. Crow first visits the father and his twin sons in the aftermath of loss. Dad and the Boys, as they are known, are mourning for their wife and mother who died suddenly from a head injury. In an early exchange, Crow reminds the father that he is “Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill…The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.” As a character, Crow challenges the conventions of realism. Is he merely a figment of the father’s Hughes-saturated imagination, or necessarily real by the virtue of the benefits he confers on the grieving family?

Max Porter is likely far better known than most debut novelists. He works at Granta, and notably was the editor of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a slim book whose categorization lies somewhere between novella and verse novel, is rendered in spare, economical prose and seems like the stylistic antithesis to Catton’s 848-page novel.

And yet, Porter’s debut has meatiness to it—a denseness of allegory and allusion; a mélange of fairy tale, fable and dream. The novel takes its title from the Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, and the book’s epigraph is also taken from a Dickinson poem, “That Love is all there is”—both nod to the book’s examination of love, loss and grief. Porter’s debut abounds in delightful allusions to literature, music and mythology. The father character is well-read and turns to art as a means of alleviating his grief: “Many people said ‘You need time’, when what I needed was Shakespeare, Ibn ’Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf.” Being “chewed apart by sadness,” he likens himself and his twins to the Trojan priest Laocoön his two sons, who according to Greek mythology were attacked by giant serpents.

The novel cycles between three perspectives—Dad, Boys, and Crow—and many begin with the familiar “Once upon a time” trope. One such story, which turns out to be a bad dream of Crow’s, is reminiscent of the witch’s fate at the hands of Hansel and Gretel: “And the boys cooked Crow in a very hot oven until he was nothing but cells.” Allusions range from Irish mythology (“I remember a story about an Irish warrior who killed his son by mistake”—referring to Cú Chulainnk, who takes his son Connla for an intruder and kills him) to contemporary literature (“I remember a story about a Japanese writer who fell on his own sword…’—referring to Yukio Mishima, a Nobel Prize nominee who committed ritual suicide by seppuku after a failed coup). The novel’s references are broad and eclectic; Porter himself is clearly an erudite man, and the result is a book that yields more with each subsequent rereading.

Contrary to the book’s title, Crow—a thing with feathers—is a vehicle to overcoming grief, rather than a representation of grief itself. The family’s sadness is rendered exquisitely, both in figurative and prosaic language. Take the following passage as an example of the former: “…the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.” And as for a devastating instance of the latter:

“She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.”

At times, the writing verges on the surreal: the father imagines his dead wife’s ‘ribs splayed stretched like a xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her bones’, which echoes some of Hughes’ more macabre poetry: “…he drowned in his own blood / Dragged under by the weight of his guts” (from “A Kill”).

Amid the grief and mortality, however, Porter interweaves humor and self-conscious irreverence, of which Crow is generally the source. “Eugh,” says Crow at one point of the father’s sentimentality, “you sound like a fridge magnet.” Describing his own actions, Crow narrates: “Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAAH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p. 45).” With a metanarrative flourish, in one section he records:

“Notes towards my voice-driven literary memoir, if I may:

I loved waiting, mid-afternoon, alone in their home for them to come back from school. I acknowledge that I could have been accused of showing symptoms related to unfulfilled maternal fantasies, but I am a crow and we can do many things in the dark, even play at Mommy. I just pecked about, looking at this, looking at that. Lifting up the occasional sock or jigsaw piece. I used to do little squitty shits in places I knew he’d never clean.”

As tired as the term may be, “postmodern” is the perfect descriptor for Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Unreliable narration obscures the distinction between reality and imagination, and metafictional awareness binds the book. One of Crow’s fairy tales ends with SAT-style “Comprehension Questions” such as, “If the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief, who do you think has died?” At one point, the father notes, commenting upon the nature of his own relationship with Crow: “I am…trying to entertain the notion of Crow a bit less since I read a book about psychotic delusions.” And even more strikingly self-consciousness, Crow discusses himself as a narrative trope:

“In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God.”

Layered with pathos, allusion, and humor, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is more than the sum of its composite elements. Pithy yet rich, the novel is a moving and astounding debut. Porter’s Crow is as vivid as Hughes’ original, and his writing no less memorable.

Quicksand – Review

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books.

*

Early on in Steve Toltz’s new novel, Aldo Benjamin, the hapless antihero, remarks:

I don’t understand why all the film and literature of this country has to have as its main character a silent or laconic type. That’s not like real life. My experience of people is they never shut up!

Aldo’s view seems to reflect his creator’s. In Quicksand, Toltz demonstrates the loquacity and morbid humour that characterised his debut novel, the commercially successful and Booker Prize-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole.

As with the characters in Toltz’s debut, Quicksand’s Aldo experiences one well-intentioned disaster after the other. With Sisyphean persistence, and sometimes outright stupidity, Aldo struggles through catastrophic business ventures, roughing ups by angry debtors, volatile relationships and run-ins with the police – all of which are documented by Liam Wilder, a failed writer who seeks success by trying to pen a biography about his best friend. As Liam puts it in the title of his first draft, pitiable Aldo is the ‘King of Unforced Errors’.  Aldo’s predilection for misfortune is partnered with a fear of falling into either the ‘horror of the prison, or into the horror of the hospital’ – both environments that, ironically, he becomes well-acquainted with.

At a recent Brisbane Writers Festival event Toltz said that he finds reading Dostoyevsky or books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer pleasurable because ‘the writer is on the page’ – the literary equivalent of a film’s auteur. Although his is only a two-book oeuvre (two large books, however: A Fraction of the Whole was over 700 pages and Quicksand a comparatively brief 448) so far, the mark of Toltz’s authorship is already distinctly formed. Frenetic prose with a surfeit of ideas? Witticisms that are both riotous and bleak? Positively Toltzian.

Aldo is the source of much of the book’s humour. He is amusingly garrulous, often talking in non-sequiturs. Comic gems are scattered thick and fast. Take, for example:

Humanity’s common goal is to die with dignity, and dignified in that context is defined as dying in our own beds, but what if you have a waterbed or Spider-Man bedsheets? What’s dignified about that?

To have the pleasure of actually meeting someone whose speech ranges as widely and deeply as Aldo seems improbable, if enthralling.

At times, Quicksand reads like a comic novel in the vein of Howard Jacobson, where certain stories exist for no reason other than to lift the rate of chuckles per chapter. For example, considering that Aldo harbours a hysterical – and at times, frustrating – paranoia about life, the fact that he remains so stubbornly blind to his own lack of business acumen feels unwieldy; failed ventures include a tanning-salon taxi, a device that was designed (but failed) to detect peanuts for those with allergies, and a matchmaking service to ‘hook up all the leftover single women in New York and London with all the one-child-policy single men in Shanghai and Beijing’.

While the novel is narrated from Liam’s perspective (the latter half is told from Aldo’s), the language is richly figurative. But Toltz’s prose, which rolls along at a frenetic pace, does sometimes snag on the odd incongruous expression. There are some shockers: ‘Stella was gliding towards [Aldo] in her bathrobe like a weary traveller on an airport walkway’; ‘I straddle my board in what feels like all seven-tenths of the earth’s surface, longing for terrestrial existence’; and, when discussing Aldo’s dead sister, ‘In the dark, you could almost hear his memories crackle like bacon.’ Using the device of a book-within-a-book jumbles Liam’s narrative voice with Toltz’s authorial oversight. Who does the blame lie with—Liam, the failed writer, from whom we might expect purple prose, or Toltz himself?

While it has its flaws, Quicksand is undoubtedly an impressive piece of work. The novel tackles big themes – love, mortality, the purpose and role of art and artists – and bursts with ideas and humour. It challenges the idea held in some circles that serious fiction can’t also be funny. With Quicksand, Toltz has given the literature of this country a main character worth remembering for his words, and not for his lack of them.

*

Quicksand

by Steve Toltz

Hamish Hamilton, 2015

Author Interview – Abigail Ulman

This interview originally appeared on Writer’s Edit

*

Abigail Ulman is a debut author whose stellar first collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was published in Australia by Penguin (Hamish Hamilton). The publications rights have also sold in the UK, the US, and Germany. Ulman has lived all over the world, including in Israel, Egypt and France, and she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow for Fiction at Stanford University.

Hot Little Hands is a collection of diverse, utterly absorbing stories that examine the lives of females on the edge: of discovery, of responsibility, and of adulthood.

Donna Lu spoke to Abigail Ulman about getting published, short stories, her writing routine, and her advice for emerging writers.

The first story in the collection, Chagall’s Wife, was also the first to be published. How did the book come about?

I published that story [Chagall’s Wife] in Meanjin, and a number of Australian publishing houses contacted me, asking whether I had more work [written]. I was living in the States at the time, and the next time I came back to Australia I met up with them. I had four stories written then. About a year later, I had six stories. I have an agent, although it isn’t necessary for Australian writers to have one, and at that point I said to him that I wanted to get a book out. I sold it to Penguin, who was my first choice.

How did you go about securing an agent?

He was another person who contacted me because he had seen my work. Although I’m quite shy about doing it—nothing ever feels finished—submitting to literary magazines and competitions is really a good way [of getting started].

How long have you known that you wanted to be a writer? Did you have any inkling as a child?

Years ago I saw my grade two teacher, and she said, ‘Are you still writing?’ I guess I was always writing from a really young age, but I also wanted to do different things. I thought I’d maybe go into acting or filmmaking; I’ve always had an idea that I was going to do something creative, but I wasn’t 100% sure that it was going to be writing.

How did you come to be a writer? Did you study writing at university?

I did a Bachelor of Creative Arts—creative writing, film and theatre, and then I worked for a while in retail jobs before moving overseas for a few years. All that time, I was thinking ‘I want to be a writer!’ but I had no idea how I was going to do it. It’s such an anxious time of life, fun because you have a dream, but you have no idea how to get from A to B.

Eventually I came back to Australia and did a Postgraduate Diploma in Creative Writing, and then I applied for a writing fellowship overseas [the Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellowship], which I got into and moved over there. I think it was a combination of studying it and having life experiences, and then persevering.

In an interview Ian McEwan once said that he thinks many emerging American writers spend too much time in universities and not enough in pubs and bars, experiencing life. How did you find the university experience in America?

The thing with Stanford was having amazing professors, but also having good reader friends. I really loved my workshop experience; it was really important to me, and the people who I was in the workshop with still read my work.

To take a workshop or writing class, or have a writing group where you can get people to read your work and make it better is really important; they’re the people who won’t let you give up when you really want to, which happens all the time.

But I did meet people in the States—not in that workshop but in other settings—who had gone from high school to undergrad to an MFA, and it was so streamlined, and they had only been in academic environments. [In those situations] I think your second book ends up being a novel set in an academic setting that is a loosely veiled portrayal of the setting you’re in. I subscribe to the idea that you should have a balance of studies—if possible—and life experience, which scares a lot of people, particularly in the States, where everyone is driven and ambitious.

You’ve lived all sorts of places—San Francisco, New York, Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris. Do you find that your travels have affected your writing in any way?

A lot of the characters are moving from one place to the other, for some in more privileged circumstances than others. I think, being a writer, you have one foot in and one foot out of every circumstance that you’re in, you’re a little bit of an observer, and travelling is a very great and natural way to be in that situation—you’re in a new culture and seeing things from an outsider’s eyes, and can ask a lot of questions that you might not be able to ask when you’re in your home environment.

What are your reading habits? Do you have a preferred medium?

I like reading everything— a lot of poetry, non-fiction, novels. I do really love short stories, and how it’s such an intense form. To have to tell a whole story with that sort of economy is a challenge as a writer, and very satisfying as a reader. I also have an Internet-addled attention span, so I think they’re a perfect medium for this age.

In one of the stories, Claire [a film studies PhD student] considers getting a Junot Diaz quote tattooed on her arm. Has his work influenced your own?

He is a huge inspiration for me. His first book Drowned, a collection of short stories, is brilliant. His work is very voice-driven and colloquial—he swears a lot—and he throws you into a community, a culture, or an environment in his work, and expects you to keep up. That was inspiring, that you can write characters’ voices as how they might actually speak in real life, and that it’s as valid as writing that’s more flowery or more traditionally ‘literary’.

It’s also important to me to have ambiguity in a work. That Claire character: some people really love her and some people are very critical of her, and I’m okay with either reading. But it can be uncomfortable sometimes for a reader when the writer isn’t being didactic or telling them what to think.

In Same Old Same As, with the character who says she got sexually abused: when I’ve been interviewed about that, some people refer to her as ‘the girl who made up that story’ and others call her ‘the girl who got sexually abused’. That openness in a story is something that I strive for, and it is something I think Junot Diaz does too.

Are there any other short story writers that you particularly love?

There are so many. Some of my professors from Stanford are among my favourites. Tobias Wolf—he’s got a collection called The Night In Question. Elizabeth Tallent, who isn’t as well known in Australia, has a book called Honey. And Colm Tóibín is more famous for his novels, but I love his short stories. His collection, The Empty Family, is fantastic.

It must have been amazing to be mentored by these sorts of writers.

It was incredible. The level that they read at and give advice from was amazing. It’s also that they’d been editing and teaching for so long and were still supportive of and excited about a younger generation of writers; I don’t think all older writers are that way. Especially Colm Tóibín, who is so excited when he finds young writers that he likes. He does what he can for them in the industry, encourages older writers to pay attention to them—it can make such a difference in a young writer’s life.

What’s your writing routine? Discipline is particularly difficult for many emerging writers

I usually write first thing when I get up, before I email anyone or do anything like that. I’m a bit of a night owl, so I write again at the end of the day and that’s when I’m most creative and productive, after everyone else has fallen asleep. 11[pm] to 2-ish is a really productive time of day.

The discipline thingeven when I had sold the book, I had enormous trouble getting myself to sit at the desk and to structure my time. It’s incredibly hard and it’s an ongoing battle for writers. Deadlines—either with a class, a friend, or using a short story competition—are really helpful.

I think, especially for younger writers, who have jobs or studies, setting a goal at the beginning of the week for a certain number of words, hours or pages is helpful. I think it’s also about being nice to yourself—most writers have really unrealistic goals. I used to think I’d be able to write eight hours in a row on a day off, and then I’d waste a lot of time on the Internet and be really hard on myself about it. When it comes to discipline, starting small and being kind to yourself is key.

What’s next for you? Can we expect more short stories, or is there something else in the works?

I have a few short stories in the works, but I’m also trying to tackle a novel, which is a whole new challenge. I’m not sure what my next book will be—my plan is for it to be a novel, but because I’m also working on some short stories it’s a bit of a horse race—we’ll see what ends up leading the pack.

Hot Little Hands – Review

This review originally appeared on Lip Mag.

*

Watching Lena Dunham’s Girls for the first time was an edifying experience. A large part of the show’s appeal for me—and perhaps for countless other teenagers and women in their early twenties—was its flawed and often hapless characters, who are relatable precisely because of their faults. Here was Hannah Horvath: podgy, solipsistic beyond help, ambitious but ill-disciplined, the antithesis to Carrie Bradshaw. Here, so rarely seen on screen, was realistic sex (and bad sex) and uncertain relationships, imperfection and insecurity. Here were girls (perhaps not quite mature enough to call themselves ‘women’ yet), who—like so many of us—were ‘almost getting it kind of together’.

If I thought Girls was original, reading Abigail Ulman’s debut collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was something of a revelation. Her protagonists are all female, aged thirteen to thirty, and captured at liminal periods in their lives. There is something strikingly familiar about Ulman’s stories, which pulse with vitality and veracity; her characters’ narratives are in part our own. In the three stories that feature Claire Oglind, a cinema studies PhD candidate, we recognise her struggle with the responsibility of incipient adulthood; in ‘Head To Toe’, about two best friends who have racked up notable experience in the hallucinogenic and sexual spheres, we remember our teenage desire for experimentation; and in ‘Plus One’, in 22-year-old blogger Amelia, we understand the lack of motivation causing her struggle to deliver on a significant book deal. 

Ulman’s fiction exhibits such astute perception of mannerism and behaviour that one might easily mistake some of the stories narrated in first-person for personal essays. What is particularly brilliant is her mastery of dialogue, which has all the nuance, irreverence and illogic of reality. Non-sequiturs vivify passages like implicit stage directions. Used most dazzlingly in ‘Head To Toe’, a few subtle lines are enough to reveal a previous sexual tryst between teenagers Zach and Elise, which sets Elise up for some ribbing from her best friend, Jenni:

‘You can chuck your stuff upstairs in my room,’ [Zach] said.

‘Cool,’ said Jenni. ‘Lead the way, Lise.’

‘Shut up,’ said Elise.

‘That was at my mum’s house,’ Zach said.

Many of the stories in Hot Little Hands end with no clear resolution, which for the most part adds to their verisimilitude. Life is messy; ambivalence and uncertainty abound. Neatly tied endings would seem too contrived for Ulman’s characters. For most of them, full-fledged maturity and composure seem just beyond grasp. Claire, the PhD student, describes herself as someone who has technically come of age without emotionally having done so. In the processes of self-discovery, in trying to get it ‘kind of together’, questionable decisions are inevitably made: Amelia, the wunderkind blogger, decides to avoid writing her contracted book by intentionally getting pregnant; in ‘Same Old Same As’, another story, the protagonist Ramona appears to use the trauma of her sexual abuse as a tool for canvassing popularity among school friends.

Several of Ulman’s stories have features of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, in which experience is gained and innocence is lost. The haunting ‘Warm-Ups’ most closely observes this form, in which Kira, a 13-year-old Russian gymnast, prepares to travel to San Diego with her teammates and coach. Kira’s grandmother, who has never been to America, laments the girl’s departure, explaining that upon her return Kira will ‘be a woman of the world.’ Claire’s journey is thematically similar: she has left her family and friends behind in London to pursue her PhD at Stanford University. Then there’s Sascha, who spends a day with her high school science teacher in ‘Chagall’s Wife’, who describes that her sexual awakening at age 12 was like ‘being admitted into a new world’.

Ulman’s characters, who are still at stages of their lives when the pressure of others’ perceptions is acutely felt, often act with reckless abandon and studied insouciance that belies their underlying vulnerability. Take Claire: she is newly pregnant when we first meet her, and unintentionally so: it’s ‘for a limited time only’, she declares flippantly to a total stranger; later, she jokingly offers the baby to two ‘grown-up’ friends. Her nonchalance serves as a coping mechanism for a fragility that we are only occasionally privy to. These glimpses are rendered brilliantly, and with muted pathos. For example: ‘“I used to look at your tattoos and think I would still be looking at them when I was old,”’ she tells an ex; or, ‘‘If I was Nicolas Cage I’d be elbowing someone in the jaw right now, but I’m me, so I cry tears onto my feet and watch them sink into my shoes.’

In Lena Dunham’s own debut book, Not That Kind Of Girl, which last year graced the New York Times Best Seller list and the Instagram accounts of veteran non-readers, she decries that ‘there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that…we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.’ The significance of Hot Little Hands, which is so enthrallingly and candidly about women, stands counter to such prejudice. It is a debut that demands to be read and discussed. Here is a collection loud with the stories of a generation of young women; Ulman exquisitely gives them their deserved voices.

*

Hot LIttle Hands

by Abigail Ulman

Hamish Hamilton, 2015

The Strays – Review

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of BooksSince then, The Strays has gone on to win the 2015 Stella Prize.

*

It comes as no surprise that Emily Bitto’s haunting debut, The Strays, is on the shortlist for this year’s Stella Prize. Bitto’s well-constructed novel, primarily set in 1930s Melbourne, conveys vividly the lives of bohemians, the ties of family, sibling rivalry, and female friendship.

The novel is narrated, in 1985, by a middle-aged woman named Lily, who reflects on her childhood spent in the household of Evan Trentham, an avant-garde Modernist painter. Evan is the father of Lily’s childhood best friend, Eva. He and his wife, Helena, live with their three daughters in suburban Melbourne, in a large house on impressive land with a well-tended garden. In the midst of the Depression and against what they perceive to be the stiflingly bourgeois art establishment, the Trenthams give their patronage to budding young Modernists. The household soon turns into a commune of artists, heady with parties, affairs, flowing drink, banned books and, of course, irresponsible parenting. The three Trentham girls are often shushed or told to ‘buzz off’ by their mother, Helena, and dismissed as ‘progeny’ to their faces by Evan, their father.

Inextricably linked to perceptions about talent and genius is the common belief that great creatives are badly suited to domestic felicity, that above all else a true artist is selfishly wedded to his or her work. Tolstoy, in an 1863 diary entry, lamented, ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.’ Jean Rhys, who only came to know her daughter in adulthood, was described by her editor Diana Athill as being ‘no better at motherhood than she was at filling hot-water bottles’, which is to say, totally inept. Manic and volatile, creatives are supposed to make notoriously bad parents.

This perhaps excuses Evan Trentham’s laissez-faire yet warm attitude towards his daughters, but doesn’t let his wife off the hook so easily. Helena Trentham is no Modernist star herself, but an amateur who paints miniatures and expresses no more than a moderate interest in collaborating with her husband on his work. Her real interests are gardening, drinking, and socialising. It is Helena who primarily draws in other artists, knits their social circle tight. Despite her disingenuousness, Helena has a lasting impact upon Lily, who even in middle age identifies the woman as ‘the mother figure that I have fought against my whole life’. With or without excuses, ultimately both the Trentham parents’ choices and inaction render them largely culpable for the dark misfortunes that befall their daughters. The book’s narrative structure – told retrospectively, with the hindsight of a much older woman – calls into question the adage that time heals all wounds.

Bitto’s commune, termed the Melbourne Modern Art Group, is clearly based on the real-life Heide Circle, which was established by John and Sunday Reed in the mid-1930s. Part II of Bitto’s novel is entitled, in homage, ‘The Circle’. The Reeds, like the Trenthams, lived on a property in suburban Melbourne, where over time pre-eminent artists like Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Danila Vassilieff would work. In a mid-1940s photograph, Sunday Reed stands by the front door of Heide in a garden that is as lush and wild as Helena Trentham’s. The criticism that the fictional Melbourne Modern Art Group encounters (their art is described as ‘terrible and degenerate’ in one newspaper article) parallels the prevailing anti-Modernist sentiment in Australia during the interwar period.

Despite its specific historical context, The Strays is strikingly imaginative. Bitto examines characters whose lives are usually seen as peripheral to the grand narratives of great artists: the relatives and friends of celebrated individuals; colleagues who never become successful. Her prose is often figurative – effortlessly so, it seems, and never overdone. Many of her sentences are so remarkable they demand rereading, from simple gems like ‘the beams of headlights painted the side of the house’, to the more visceral:

I wonder if Evan and Helena ever thought of themselves as the source from which their own children would run in time, the blood whose welling-up their daughters would try to staunch with the tourniquet of friends, lovers and children.

Much of the novel is told from Lily’s perspective in youth, and astutely describes the minutiae of childhood: burrowing oneself into a mother’s dress, sliding backwards down a staircase banister, the surreptitious pilfering of contraband, the unembarrassed ease of making friends.

One of the goals of the Stella Prize is to celebrate Australian women’s writing. The Strays, a deftly plotted, carefully crafted narrative about art, trauma and female friendship, wouldn’t be badly placed to take home the top gong.

*

The Strays

by Emily Bitto

Affirm Press, 2014