Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 352 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
When ColmTóibín is quoted on the front of your novel…well, that seems like a pretty solid endorsement to me. “I love how up-to-the-minute and street-wise the stories are, and how frank about sex and girls,” he writes of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection Hot Little Hands.
Of course, we all know that a lot of so-called endorsements of this kind are incestuous in the sense that they come from authors sharing the same publishing house — but in this case, the connection is even closer. Tóibín was one of Ulman’s tutors during her stint at Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction.
I guess you could look at this in two ways: either Tóibín is simply being kind and supportive of his former student, or he genuinely believes her stuff is the real thing. Having read the book, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.
There are nine self-contained stories in this collection, most of which are set in Melbourne (where Ulman was born and raised), as well as a handful in the US (where Ulman has studied) and one in Vladivostok.
All are about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world — with mixed results. Many of the characters are growing up too quickly and entering the tricky worlds of sex and adulthood before their time; others, such as Claire, a character who stars in several of the stories, are in their mid-twenties and acting immaturely, almost as if they want to remain little girls forever.
It is this blurring of the line between adolescence and adulthood that Ulman captures so perfectly — and which makes these stories so effortlessly readable and richly authentic.
I loved all of the stories — for different reasons — but there are a handful that stand out.
The Russian story Warm Ups is a spine-chilling tale about a group of four young gymnasts invited to the US to attend a promotional tour. It’s told from the perspective of 13-year-old Kira, whose parents cough up the airfare for the trip because they know this could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Kira trains hard and is talented. She’s full of infectious energy and love — for her boyfriend, her mum, her dad, her grandmother and her cat. She’s sad to leave her family behind, but she’s also excited about the prospect of seeing America.
But when the girls arrive in San Diego accompanied by Coach Zhukov and his assistant Xenia things don’t go quite as everyone expected… It’s goose-bumpingly horrifying — and not in a spell-everything-out way, but in a let’s-leave-things-unsaid-and-you-can-figure-it-out-for-yourself — way. *Shudder*
(Another story, Your Charm Won’t Help You Here, about Claire being detained by Customs on her return to the US, is equally chilling. I’d actually like to see Ulman tackle a full-scale suspense novel or psychological thriller; I think she’d be brilliant at it.)
Another story that I particularly liked was Head to Toe — at 62 pages, the longest in the collection — about a pair of 15-year-old girls and what they get up to on their school holidays.
It’s one of those stories in which not much seems to happen — they go to a couple of parties, they hang out in a shopping centre, they attend a horse camp for which they’re far too old — and yet so much is encapsulated by their sullen moods, their snappy dialogue, the “wisdom” they impart to younger girls and the ways in which they relate to the adults in their lives — that there’s much more going on than meets the eye.
From the opening line — “Elise and Jenni lost their virginity at twelve and thirteen, respectively” — you know that these are street-wise teens and yet they shun their peers to attend a horse-riding camp in the country because they still have that kind of affection and passion for horses that little girls possess and to which they seem desperate to cling to for as long as possible. No sooner are they back in the city than they’re attending parties, getting drunk and having sex. Again, it’s another story about blurred lines.
Smart, sassy stories
This is a collection of smart, sassy stories about young women. There’s sex and alcohol and parties and messy, muddled relationships with boyfriends and lovers. It’s disquieting in places and a little unnerving in others. It’s thrilling and wryly funny. Some readers may cringe in recognition of the behaviours depicted here. Others, like me, may want to reach into the pages and have a quiet (or perhaps a loud) word in certain ears.
Interestingly, despite covering similar ground to another short story collection I read earlier in the year — Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight — this one was so much more engaging and eloquent. Indeed, I found it totally absorbing and loved spending time with these intriguing characters.
This is my 29th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 20th for #AWW2016.
19 thoughts on “‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman”
Well that’s me sold. I’ve just ordered, well click and collected, straight away. Sounds like a cracking collection and I’m going to have a summer or short stories I think.
Yay! I think you’ll love this collection, Simon. This is actually my third short story collection of the year, and I’ve got the Tsiolkas one lying in wait.
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I love what you say about celebrity endorsements, Kim. I remember being very impressed by a book that came my way that had been endorsed by JM Coetzee. I mean, Nobel Prize winner and all. But like anyone else, a celeb endorser can get pressured one way or another, and the publisher can also excise just a few words out of an otherwise lukewarm endorsement. I’ve learned not to take any notice of them.
Well, in the world of Irish fiction, Joseph O’Connor (whom I greatly admire) must be the King of “Blurbing” because he’s quoted on every new release. But then you realise he’s a tutor (at UCD, though I think he’s moved on now) and he’s simply endorsing all the novels written by his students! In the grand scheme of things I don’t think it matters: I’m just too cynical to take any “Blurbing” seriously (and I’m always embarrassed when I find out some of my reviews have been used in this way).
Oh, I think it’s a hoot when mine are (but I guess I’m not in the writing profession). I know of a couple of mine but who knows if there are others. I don’t think I really write the sort of “bites” that can be easily used – but, as Lisa said, they edit your words to make something don’t they?
The only opinions I take seriously these days are my fellow bloggers because I know I can I trust them to give an honest intelligent opinion, every time.
Yes, I take celebrity endorsements with a grain of salt too. They never determine whether I’d read a book or not, but I’m always interested to see who has endorsed them. Sometimes you can see the cogs – ah, this book is about X so Y would be a good endorser. Sometimes you read in the acknowledgements a thank you to someone who has “mentored me” in my writing, and that person has endorsed the book. Well, of course they would! Still, it’s always interesting …
This is a book that appeared on a lot of top read posts at the end of last year (was it? or the year before?) and I thought I’d love to read it. Somehow I feel I may not, but you never know. I need to catch up on more Aussie short stories. I wish I could remember them more down the track though.
I clearly don’t follow enough Australian blogs because I’d never heard of this book until the UK publisher pitched it to me a few months ago. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure if it would be my thing, but I figured I’d read the first story and make a judgement call as to whether to continue reading it or not. Well, I was gripped. It’s such an easy read, perfect for my mood at the time (overwhelmed by new job, commuting to unfamiliar part of London etc). I know you liked Six Bedrooms, but I think Hot Little Hands is so much better…
Haha, Kim! But, is it as good as Harrower!
Really enjoying your focus on Australian Women Writers Kim… so many great new-to-me authors to explore. Love the sound of these ‘Smart, sassy stories’ … sold!
Thanks, Poppy. I’ve never read so many women before! I do feel the need to read more men now. I don’t think it’s healthy to read a diet of women-only fiction; I need to read stuff by men too. Ideally it should be a balance.
I love the sound of this collection Kim – I’m really enjoying short stories this year. Interesting to see the three different covers. I like them all.
Yes, the covers are great, aren’t they? And so different from
one territory to another.
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Must admit that I wasn’t as enamoured with this collection as you Kim. I read it before Six Bedrooms which felt like more of an authentic suburban teen voice but then again, maybe Ulman wanted something broader. Ultimately, it felt uneven to me – the stories that stood out (my favourites were Head to Toe and the one about the gymnasts) were brilliant but the rest, not so memorable.
Each to their own, Kate. I think I liked this one because it felt more authentic to me; I wasn’t convinced by Six Bedrooms, which felt aimed at an audience much younger than me.
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I thought about your review of Six Bedrooms when I was reading this. It does sound interesting and it’s always good to have young women’s authentic voices represented.
I wish these kinds of stories were around when I was a teen/young adult…
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