“‘Coming of Age Again and Again and Again’: a Review of ‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman”, by Cosima McGrath

‘Coming of age’ is a stupid phrase: that’s what you realise on finishing Abigail Ulman’s debut collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands. It implies a point of completion, unfettered access to knowledge and wisdom, some superior state that doesn’t require further development. But we are constantly ‘coming of age’, again and again and again. At twelve, at fifteen, at eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-seven, thirty. Coming of age is a continuous process. And that’s why life is sometimes so painful.

What follows is part review, part memoir – a review of Hot Little Hands interspersed with reflections on my own ongoing coming of age.

I was seventeen and he was fingering me on a bed in our friend’s parent’s penthouse. I called him Jesus. His name was John but that’s my dad’s name. His last name began with a C – JC, Jesus Christ.

Outside, our friends were drinking Cruisers and playing Guitar Hero or making out on the balcony. It was Schoolies and everyone was frantically trying to do whatever it is you’re supposed to do at Schoolies. I wasn’t drinking. I had a rule that I wouldn’t drink until I was legally allowed to. That’s the type of girl I was – law-abiding, shy, straitlaced. I also had a rule that I wouldn’t have sex until I’d been dating a guy for at least a year. But here I was in a dark room, on a bed, with Jesus, who was having trouble removing my too tight, too short denim shorts.

I wasn’t even sure I liked Jesus. He was ginger and I liked gingers but he was a ‘bad boy’ – into drugs and definitely not into Jane Austen, absurdist theatre or Doctor Who. He called me Coco-Pops and all my friends told me he was really into me by playground logic: he teases you because he likes you. I was flattered so I went along with it. I went along with it when he kissed me on the balcony. I went along with it when he led me to the bedroom. I went along with it when he shuffled my body up the bed with one hand while the other undid his belt buckle. His orange stubble scratched the edges of my lips. His fingers hurt inside me. I opened my eyes while we were kissing and stared at his freckles. I decided I didn’t want to go along with it any more. I made some excuse, slipped out of the bedroom, grabbed my friend who was also sober and bored, and walked with her back through Surfers Paradise to our apartment. We watched Northanger Abbey and ate a packet of Tim Tams each.

Disquieting and strikingly familiar, the stories in Hot Little Hands are linked by themes of desire, friendship, and sexuality. Each character, no matter their age, heritage or geographical location, exists in that murky unmapped area after innocence but before knowledge and understanding, somewhere between childhood and adulthood, girlhood and womanhood.

Over the course of nine stories we meet eight young women. Sascha, a high school student, is testing boundaries with her science teacher, Mr Ackerman, and beginning to notice her sexual power – “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.” Jenni and Elise are best friends who become disenchanted with the wild parties, unsatisfying sex, and endless stream of text messages, of their teens. Amelia is a young writer with a book deal who decides to have a baby to avoid meeting her deadline – “It was an idea I had sitting there one day: […] I could just have a baby and forget about everything”. And Claire, well Claire is probably the character who best illustrates the idea that coming of age is a continuous (and haphazard) process. We meet her in three separate stories: first, as a PhD student in San Francisco when she discovers she is pregnant to her clingy ex-boyfriend; again at twenty-seven as things unravel and she falls hard for a beautiful nineteen-year-old; and finally, strangely enough, in an airport when she is refused entry into America.

I remember being fingered by Jesus in a penthouse.

These characters, mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings, are self-absorbed, confused and painfully relatable. It is a testament to Ulman’s skills that she is able to conjure deeply personal emotions – shame, lust, envy, regret – and render them universal, while also carefully illustrating the nuances of each girl’s transition or ‘coming of age’. The stories in this collection triggered in me a literary Madeleine moment. I remembered being fingered by Jesus in a penthouse. I remembered the thrill of testing boundaries. I remembered the first time I wanted to have sex and the first time I thought I was in love. I remembered being arrogant and cruel, naïve and vulnerable, thoughtless and heartbroken.

I took his hand and placed it between my legs.

I liked to call him Teach even though technically he wasn’t my tutor anymore and technically we were just friends. The first movie we saw together was Argo. He’d seen it twice already. Afterwards he drove me back to my flat and kissed me on the cheek. We saw The Bling Ring and played ‘212’ by Azaelia Banks on repeat all the way to his place where he put his hand on my knee while I cried with homesickness. When we sawThe Great Gatsby he cried and I looped my arm around his and squeezed his hand as Carey Mulligan threw dress shirts into the air. We kissed in I Give It A Year. Once, while we were watching the ads, waiting for the film to start, I took his hand and placed it between my legs. I don’t remember the movie we watched that night. It was French.

I knew what to do when he stood watching me as we waited for a bus. When he sat down I pulled his face towards me and kissed him. I liked knowing the security cameras were capturing everything, I liked knowing that this time I kissed him, I was controlling the rhythm and pace of this interaction, not him.

While each individual story in Hot Little Hands is well balanced and structured, as a collection it is uneven. There is little definition, particularly between those stories set in Australia. Characters tend to blend together, linked as they are by the common search for a sense of identity, purpose and belonging, the usual coming of age tropes.There are, however, a few standouts such as Sascha in the opening story, ‘Chagall’s Wife’, and Claire. These characters are more fully realised, their voices more authentic. Perhaps the strongest, most astounding story follows thirteen-year-old Kira, a gymnast from Vladivostok, as she travels to America, her first trip away from her family. This story punches you hard in the gut leaving you gasping and sore.

Where Ulman succeeds is in the little details and phrases that are all too relatable. In each story there is a nugget of something familiar. In each story something will hit just a little too close to home. When Sascha goes to a movie with her teacher she wonders what people will think: “She’s too old to be his daughter, probably, and too young to be his sister. I wondered what they’d finally decide.” I knew this thought, I’d had this thought before, because in a way I’d been there, done that. When Bradley, Anya’s crush, leads her into his bedroom and lies back on the bed she says, “I had never touched a boy before, so I don’t know how I knew exactly what to do next, when he unzipped his fly…” I remembered the inexperienced seventeen-year-old me who tried to go along with it. I feared for my seventeen-year-old sister who had called me as I finished Hot Little Hands to ask whether she should kiss a boy and whether, if she did decide to kiss him, he’d want to have sex.

I desperately wanted to touch him.

I can remember the moment I decided I was ready for sex. I was eighteen and studying for a semester at the University of Manchester. His name was Jamie. He was tall and lanky and ginger – about as close to an Andy Murray lookalike as I was ever going to find. He was also my flatmate. Our rooms were directly above each other. We used to say we’d install a bucket and pulley system outside our windows to send snacks and notes to each other.

It was O-Week and there were a lot of strangers in our kitchen. A couple were making out against the ironing board, a few dishevelled boys with names like Dafydd and Cillian were discussing ketamine, others were throwing scrunched up balls of The Guardian at each other. Jamie and I were sitting beside each other on top of the freezer, watching. We barely spoke but I immediately imagined an affinity. I knew he would be thinking exactly what I was thinking, thinking that this wasn’t our scene, that we should be somewhere alone together, having intellectual conversations and sharing a cider. I desperately wanted to touch him.

I would visit his room late at night, slipping in while our other flatmates were in the kitchen or showering. His pants never came off, neither did mine, though my shirt and bra often did. We’d make out furiously, sweating through our clothes, until we were both exhausted. I waited patiently for what I thought would be the next stage, the natural progression, when we’d both take our pants off and actually do something. But still, pants on, belt buckled. One night I asked, “Could we… would you like to have sex?” Jamie was the first person I’d wanted to have sex with, it was the first time I could pinpoint lust in my body, recognise it, feel something other than ashamed about it, act on it. I didn’t think he’d say no. “It’s just that you’re leaving in a few months and I’ll get too attached if we have sex, y’know. It’s too intimate.”

Despite the familiarity of characters and situations, Hot Littles Hands as a whole feels strangely lifeless. It has been too meticulously polished and edited; all the ragged edges, which would potentially have enlivened the stories, have been trimmed and hemmed. The pop culture references peppered throughout feel contrived, inserted to mark time or scrounge a laugh. It feels unnecessary, for example, for the reader to know that Claire’s housemates are making a video response to the ‘Ow, Charlie bit me’ YouTube sensation. Claire’s age, her status as Gen Y, is implicit already in her character.

Perhaps it is a bad idea to read the collection in one go, perhaps individual stories would shine if given more space in the reading experience, but these stories feel over-workshopped. There’s a fine line between well crafted and drained. And yet there is a subtlety and sympathy to these stories which almost makes up for the collection’s flaws. Ulman perfectly captures the confusion, awkwardness and general ennui of each young woman as they navigate the pivotal moments in life. Sascha articulates these moments best in 'Chagall’s Wife’: “I knew as I sat there in my uniform…that I was being admitted into a new world – that I was growing old or dying or changing or something. A sensation passed over me then, like, insects crawling around on my back.”

Sometimes we’d fool around. He never let me stay the night.

Almost a week had passed since he’d said sex was a bad idea. Still, every night, when the rest of the flat went to sleep, I’d sneak down the stairs and tap on Jamie’s door. Most of the time we’d just watch Doctor Who, lying beside each other on his single mattress like chopsticks. Sometimes we’d fool around. He never let me stay the night. After David Tennant had once again saved the human race Jamie would go brush his teeth. He’d stand at his door, toothpaste foaming around his ginger stubble, and say, “See you tomorrow.” I didn’t mind because I thought I loved him.

One night he didn’t feel like watching Doctor Who. He sat up in bed and reached over me to switch the light off. He was a gentleman, of sorts. He asked first. Confused and reluctant, I didn’t answer. But as things progressed he guided me down. I had no idea what I was doing. I had read once, probably in Dolly, that it was hot to treat the dick like lipstick, gently rubbing it over your lips. But my hair kept falling in my face and I had to pause every few seconds to pull strands from my mouth. In the end I probably had more of my own hair in my mouth than Jamie’s dick.

Afterwards he got up to brush his teeth. He kissed me on the forehead, held the door open for me and said, “See you tomorrow.”

Cosima McGrath is an editor for the online literary journal Bumf.