This short story, recently published as a standalone work, is about as perfect a prose snapshot as it is possible to get. I hope people aren’t put off by the title and the grim cover – despite the appearance of similarity with ‘misery porn’ the Ireland in this story is one blessedly free of rain drenched institutional child abuse. We see the world of Foster through the eyes of a young girl, sent away from her parents and siblings to live with a couple in Wexford. This new home has an abundance of milk and fruit and even extra money – there are clean clothes and baths and apparent happiness. The couple are strangers to our young narrator, although they are family, and we can pick up on the familial politics through her relayed information. Like our narrator, we have no idea how long the foster arrangement will be in place. We are forced to see the world through the naïve eyes of a child, and to learn both the reality of her own home life and the secrets of the home she is placed in along with her. It is both affirming to watch her unfurl like a flower from the care and attention she now receives, and heart-breaking to see her new self-worth buffeted first by the jealousy of neighbours and then by the reality that children are often pawns in a game they do not understand. Not a word is out of place, and it is utterly absorbing. Highly recommended.
“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.”
The nine stories in this collection by new Australian voice Abigail Ullman all centre around young female identity, sexuality, and the unnervingly porous membrane between childhood and adulthood. Anxiety, ambition, self-absorption and lack of self- worth are all here, often all within the same characters. Six are stand-alone stories, while three check in with a woman in her twenties living abroad at different times. It was disappointing we only get to follow the experiences of Claire, as I found her the least interesting and pretty insufferable (hipster boyfriend, barista lover, literary tattoos and plants called Umlaut).
“I knew as I sat there in my uniform… that I was growing old or dying or changing or something. A sensation passed over me then, like, insects crawling around on my back”
The strongest stories in the collection lift a veil on young female experience, and it would perhaps better to have simply dropped it again. For stories rooted in adolescence, or rich observances of change, it feels incongruous to end on resolution rather than uncertainty. Perhaps this is why the stories with younger protagonists are by far the best: the skin crawling sexual tension between Sascha and her teacher when they meet outside of school; Anya’s heart breaking attempts to fit in to a new country through blow jobs and drawing parallels with Jewish history; Jenni & Elise’s porn-inspired underage sex to a soundtrack of Kanye after they return from horse camp… Only ‘Warmups’, for me the stand out story in the collection, has a young protagonist with a definite resolution and it is one that will make you catch your breath.
It might seem like an odd criticism, but the stories are often too neat and feel too crafted. While each of the stories is individually well constructed, Hot Little Hands is an uneven collection. The life has been edited and polished out of some of the stories, so that while I often thought particular images and phrasings were excellent they often felt cold and lifeless. This is doubly disappointing as Ullman is capable of packing a genuine emotional punch – ‘Warmups’ will stay with me for a long time. Despite this I will definitely be watching Ullman with interest – we need more works that focus on exactly the subject matter Hot Little Hands does.
Hot Little Hands is published by Penguin. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.