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
I could go on… but I won’t. Let’s just say 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, 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.