Hot Little Hands
The stories in Abigail Ulman’s uneven debut collection, Hot Little Hands, are all about sexuality, sensuality and love in girls and young women, and the fascinating fluid line between childhood and being an adult.
There’s not one thing wrong with these stories. They’re all polished and shining and as sparse as is fashionable, with the legislated amount of subtext. All superfluous adverbs have been marched to the exits. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the stories set in the United States seem curiously lifeless, like an assignment for a Master of Fine Arts. There are pregnancies and unrequited love and writer’s block and general ennui among the bloggers and PhD candidates and baristas of this small world, but there’s little narrative tension.
When Ulman turns her gaze towards younger people, away from America, the collection soars. “Chagall’s Wife”, where a Melbourne schoolgirl explores the edges of her sexual power, is genuinely unpredictable. “I was yet to work out exactly what it was that guys found sexy in women,” Sascha says, “but I knew whatever it was, I had it. My body was still boyish and small and straight up and down, but I knew that it was interesting to men.” Ulman draws the reader in. We’re sitting alongside Sascha and her teacher Mr Ackerman, waiting to see what happens next.
We’re also right there with best friends, 16-year-olds Elise and Jenny in “Head to Toe”, as they navigate their adolescence together. They’re wise and worldly to a group of younger girls, yet later, in a heartbreaking scene, Elise has porn-inspired sex with her boyfriend while listening to Kanye. “By the time they got to ‘Power’, he had rolled onto his back and put her on top of him. ‘Grind down on it,’ he said. Elise didn’t really know what that meant.”
Ulman’s ability to lure readers to a slow dawning is a rare skill. In “Warm-ups”, the strongest story in the collection, we follow 13-year-old gymnast Kira from Vladivostok as she plans her first trip away from her family, to America with her coach for a demonstration. It’s simply wonderful and left my heart thumping. Finding nine killer short stories linked by theme is a difficult task, even for a writer with decades under her belt. If this is what Ulman is already capable of, Hot Little Hands will prove the start of a stellar career. LS
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2015 as "Abigail Ulman, Hot Little Hands". Subscribe here.