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,” says 14-year-old Sascha, heroine of one of the stories in Abigail Ulman’s debut collection. As Sascha walks the line between gauche innocent and ripe sexual being during an afternoon spent with her teacher, the story establishes a sexual frequency for the collection: a hum that’s at times a low buzz, at others a deafening rush.
Australian writer Ulman focuses on female protagonists aged from 13 to 30, their stories set between the US, Australia and Russia, and from the 1990s to the present day. Their experiences, from 14-year-old Ramona, who says she has been abused and sees her popularity at school soar, to 22-year-old Amelia, who “couldn’t finish her book, so decided to have a baby”, provoke a prickling sense of discomfort. This is most effectively crafted through a sudden switch from nonchalant cool to emotional weight — a device Ulman uses frequently.
Surprising and, at times, disturbing revelations (such as Sascha’s age in the first story), together with canny juxtapositions, most often innocence alongside experience, intensify this sense of unease. This is perhaps most extreme in “Head to Toe”, the story of 16-year-olds Jenni and Elise, who try to slow their acceleration into adulthood by heading back to pony camp for a few days. But on returning home, Elise plunges headlong into a hardcore sexual encounter of the most adult variety — while Jenni is downstairs watching the animated children’s film How to Train Your Dragon. Ulman’s treatment is both darkly funny and disarmingly straightforward — a frankness that is praised on the book’s jacket by Colm Tóibín, one of Ulman’s tutors at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction.
Three of the stories focus on a single character, Claire, an English girl living in San Francisco. At ages 24, 27 and 30, Claire is the oldest of the characters, and her experiences highlight how teenage emotions — bewilderment couched in blasé cool, the vulnerability of first love, feelings of powerlessness in the face of juggernaut forces — linger into adulthood. The effect is mixed. While these emotions give Claire a certain complexity, and her adult cynicism creates moments of wry humour (she gives her number to a guy at a poetry slam “scrawled illegibly next to the Frank O’Hara [tattoo] on his bicep”), the tension between them doesn’t always hit the right notes — at times leaving the narrative dragging, as in the final story, where Claire is questioned at length by US immigration authorities.
Two other writers kept coming to mind throughout — Lena Dunham, whose character Hannah Horvath in the TV series Girls says at one point, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation”; and Mary McCarthy, who, in her 1963 novel The Group, paints a wry picture of eight “modern” women after they graduate from Vassar College in 1933. In Ulman’s stories there is a similar friction between the writer’s affection for, and gently mocking depiction of, women on the cusp of change. While this collection is unlikely to have the impact of those works, Ulman is without doubt a compelling new voice.
Hot Little Hands, by Abigail Ulman, Viking, RRP£8.99, 352 pages