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Hot Little Hands – Review

This review originally appeared on Lip Mag.

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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

Categories
BOOKS

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.

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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