At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands.
I’m a busy woman, what with directing the Emerging Writers’ Festival, running a busy international literary salon and whatnot, so when I was asked to defend Abigail’s book I thought, ‘I don’t have time for this. I’m a busy woman.’
Then I thought about my notes from an in conversation I hosted with Abigail, the publicity material for the Women of Letters event she participated in, and the reference I wrote her for her Yaddo writers’ residency application. I figured I could open up the Abigail Ulman folder on my Desktop, where I’ve saved all of those bits and pieces, and pull them together in defence of Hot Little Hands.
Set in New York, Melbourne and San Francisco, Hot Little Hands is a collection of nine stories about young women trying to figure out how to grow up, no matter what their age. Humour, hedonism, heartbreak and the anxiety of adolescence spring from every page, as girls fumble their way into adulthood and explore the limits of their sexual power.
Some of these characters are on the brink of discovery. One young girl says: ‘I was yet to work out exactly what it was that guys found sexy in women, 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.’
Other characters negotiate new places and events they don’t fully understand: A series of empty sexual encounters between a girl and her boyfriend culminate in a night of porno-influenced sex 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.’
One thing that struck me (as it has most critics) about Abigail’s work is her perfect grasp of teenagers’ lives and, in particular, their sexuality. I cannot think of another writer so at ease with, and so genuinely curious about, the economy of female desire: the pull and tug of attraction and revulsion, the conflicting wants, the ambivalence.
‘Warm-Ups’ is, I think, storytelling at its best: Abigail gently lures the reader into the life of 13-year-old gymnast Kira from Vladivostok as she plans her first trip away from her family, to take part in a gymnastics demonstration with her coach in America. In a realisation that feels both slow and sudden all at once, we discover that the circumstances are far from what they seem. This isn’t just the best story in the collection; it’s the best short story I’ve ever read.
These are stories about real life, right now – about games of pretence that become frighteningly real, about mistakes willingly and unwillingly made, about daydreams that turn to nightmares, what ‘home’ means, and what to do when you have left it behind. The intricacies of these stories gather up the fresh detritus of millennial life and show it to us anew, with clear-eyed Chekhovian empathy and wisdom.
Many of Abigail’s characters are Peter Pans – characters who either don’t want, or don’t know how, to grow up. One character understands precisely how much growing up she still has to do: ‘When I was little I had a pet rabbit who didn’t get food when it was raining because I didn’t want to go out in the cold. It was a London bunny; it went hungry a lot. So this plant is going to be the first thing I take care of. It is my practice dog, and maybe my practice dog will be my practice husband, and maybe my practice husband will be my practice adopted baby from the Near East.’
These portraits show us the spirit, intelligence, heart and dreams of the characters, as well as their lapses, fears, selfish preoccupations and petty crimes. These descriptions are always presented with the unwavering gaze of an empathetic and unsentimental writer.
Short story collections tend to get a bad wrap. People say that they’re what writers do when they haven’t yet learned how to write a novel. Let me assure you, this isn’t the case here. Hot Little Hands has all the heart and chutzpah of a big, intimate novel. It is, quite simply, the best book I’ve read in years, and the strongest debut work I’ve ever encountered.
Abigail’s characters are often imperfect, confused and ignorant but happily, the author herself is anything but. Abigail’s readers are safely in the Hot Little Hands of a masterful storyteller.
I wholeheartedly support Abigail’s application to Yaddo, and urge you to offer her a writing residency.