Review: Sophia Barneson new fiction

Formed and tested

At the centre of each of these narratives – nine short stories and three novels – is a woman or a girl. Some are empathetic, others cruelly selfish; some are extroverts and others aloof; some are acerbically witty and others dangerously naive. Despite their diversity and their different locations in history, place and time of life, most of them are far more resilient than they perceive themselves to be. From the vibrant busy streets of San Francisco to the ragged beauty of the Victorian bush, the hard hot light of Perth’s glittering coastline to the narrow teeming alleyways of Prague, or the haphazard grace of a sprawling mansion garden in 1930s Melbourne, each protagonist is formed and tested by her landscape. Between them, these girls and women – from adolescence and young adulthood to middle-age – must negotiate the tentative intimacies of old and new friendships, the fluid parameters of female sexual subjectivity, the irruptive power of long-buried family secrets and the daily reality of mental illness.

Hot Little Hands is Abigail Ulman’s book-length debut, a collection of short stories of which three feature the same protagonist. The striking if relatively short piece that has been chosen to open the collection is, however, a standalone. It was ‘Chagall’s Wife’, originally published in Meanjin in 2008, that first attracted critical attention to Ulman’s writing. The story it tells is by no means an unfamiliar one. What makes it so effective is its narrative voice: that of a fourteen year old girl who seeks out the attentions of her science teacher, driven as much by a kind of curiosity about the extent of her own sexual sway as by lust. Of course, even to attribute agency to her pursuit raises discomforting questions – no matter her intent, surely at fourteen she cannot be held responsible? Their day of companionship is both his trespass and her experiment, as the stark fact of his crime is filtered through her adolescent perspective. She is the one who feels the ‘insects crawling around’ on the skin of her back as she spies him seated in a café and enters to join him; she is the one whose egotistic desire paints only the most rough outline of a man.

Ulman uses exposition sparingly, pairing rapid-fire dialogue, which occasionally skirts the edges of authenticity, with moments of sharp observation. The strength of many of the stories in her collection lies in the space she leaves to the unsaid, entrusting her readers with the task of interpreting through her characters’ words to their interior lives. It is not always clear where culpability lies, or whose truth we are encouraged to believe. Whether writing in the first or the third person – the former seems to be her natural mode – Ulman’s storytelling proceeds through a process of action, interaction and reaction.

‘The Withdrawal Method’ introduces us to Claire, a graduate student and musician in her late twenties, who has made her home in San Francisco, and whose wending through its streets and beyond we follow through ‘The Pretty One’, and then on to a kind of conclusion in ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You Here’. One effect of Ulman’s skilful and frequent use of dialogue as a kind of exposition is that the reader retains a sense of distance from Claire, even when the stories are written in the first person. We come to know her less through the evocation of her interior life than through the tenor of her relationships with others. She is sardonic, sharp, with a veneer of nonchalance that does little to conceal the desperation and defensiveness of her desire for intimacy. In ‘The Pretty One’, she moves from the false confidence of nonchalant wit to the delicious indulgence of infatuation, the heady false starts and growing intimacy of a fledging romance, and the self-flagellating aftermath of its collapse. When we meet her again in the final pages of the collection, she is alone for the first time, exposed to the reader as to the world. Gone is the defensive armour of taut, sexy banter with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, or the barely-concealed pride she takes in her command of the bustling city she has made her own. She has spent so long deferring a decision about her future that in one unlucky encounter this decision is taken out of her hands.

Hot Little Hands is preoccupied with the shape-shifting theme of female desire through adolescence and young adulthood. There is the obsessive pull of a crush, the perverse sway of a crumbling relationship, and the sometimes traumatic process of coming to understand oneself as both sexual object and sexual subject. The conclusion of one disturbing story of sexual exploitation, coming early in the collection, deftly and devastatingly brings into contrast its reader’s worldliness and its protagonist’s naivety. To speak about the loss of innocence in reflecting on narratives of adolescence is to invite cliché, yet Ulman has found rich fictional territory in the tumultuous years preceding adulthood. There is no clear fault line, no easy demarcation here between innocence and knowledge, between hazy pre-pubescent dreams and the sometimes uncomfortable reality of experience. Adolescence is a period of experimentation, yes, but also one of retreat, where the casual transgression of boundaries shares a place with the nostalgic comforts of childhood.

These are stories of love and lust, of sexual adventure and misadventure, of missed signals and the sometimes sordid reality of a sexual economy. Yet there is little eroticism in Ulman’s unsentimental, unflinchingly corporeal rendering of sexual interaction – and this does not feel like an accident. Sex is now alluring and intimate, now troubling and messy, sometimes downright unpleasant or even frightening. While some of this material is necessarily explicit, Ulman knows precisely when to resist graphic depiction and, in those few stories which circle the perimeters of tragedy, to rely on the subtle construction of threat through implication. The scenes in this collection which might seem most superficially shocking in their explicitness are not in fact those whose content is truly shocking; in the case of the latter, suggestion is enough.

The spectre of sexual depravity is taken beyond suggestion in S. J. Finn’s second novel Down to the River. Finn, an accomplished poet, traces the breakdown of social and familial bonds, following the revelation that a known paedophile has become a resident in a rural Victorian community. Down to the River confronts several of the intractable issues this raises. What community will accept the presence of a convicted child sex offender? And if none will, where is he to live? Can there be rehabilitation, or forgiveness, for such crimes? Finn does not attempt to make her protagonists – or indeed her readers – answer these questions; rather, she depicts the consequences of a growing maelstrom of indignation, fear and violence. The role of the Catholic Church in covering up child abuse and protecting known abusers is acknowledged here too, as long-buried crimes are uncovered in the harsh light of the scandal.

What arguably distinguishes this story, which is, sadly, all too familiar and topical, is Finn’s decision to include the personal testament of a perpetrator, in the form of diary extracts. It is a provocative inclusion, and one whose dramatic impact sits uneasily with the repulsion engendered by his explicit fantasies of molestation. The author of this testament never quite becomes a fully-fleshed character. Placed at one remove by the narrative frame, he is a study in the idea of culpability. Not only is he identified as having himself been a victim of child sexual abuse, there is an explicit causal connection drawn between his experience of being molested and his paedophilic desires. The ethical complexity of the questions this connection raises – How do we speak meaningfully about victimhood when the abused becomes the abuser? Should our response be to punish or to attempt to understand? – is obscured somewhat by the distancing narrative device. Given that we have access only to short selections of his recorded words, there is little opportunity for Finn to develop the sense of an interior life, and her decision to do so briefly at the novel’s close is slightly jarring. To her credit, though, she resists an easy ending for this most twisted of stories, leaving us instead with a series of vignettes that serve to highlight the intractability of the issues.

Finn’s prose is unembellished and conversational in tone, twinning unhurried dialogue with intermittent glimpses of the surrounding landscape, with its craning eucalypts and cold sky ‘loaded with stars’ – a setting that seems poised on occasion to all but overwhelm the fragile ecosystem of human dwellings which dot the town’s surrounding slopes and valleys. The interior lives of the novel’s three central characters – reporter Joni, her son Luke, and her editor Roy – are for the most part revealed to the reader through direct exposition. Perhaps the most compelling quality of Finn’s novel is its astute sense of the everyday. She dramatises the casual or fraught ways in which two people interact, the slow unfolding of a new relationship, the myriad assumptions members of a family make about one another, the idiosyncrasies of long established companionship.

In contrast, there is a sense of dislocation from everyday life permeating Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, the second novel from S. A. Jones, who has also enjoyed acclaim as a writer of non-fiction. Its eponymous narrator seems to speak from a position outside the milling interactions of the people she observes. She has been made solipsistic by her battle with what her doctors call depression and anxiety, but what she refers to as ‘The Black Place’. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a tactile, propulsive novel, employing the present tense to conjure the immediacy of a life that is threatening to slip from its moorings. Jones skill is evident in passages of reflection, which make tangible the sensations of epiphany, frustration, affection and despair.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is not a novel that is easily categorised, encompassing as it does the trajectory of a failed affair, the promise of a new romance, an exploration of history in a section of overseas travel, and, throughout it all, its protagonist’s struggle with mental illness. Isabelle conceives of her depression and anxiety as something separate to herself, a phenomenon she describes as ‘an external visitation of pure malevolence’. The recurring motif of ‘The Black Place’ lends Isabelle’s experience a veneer of the supernatural, conjuring images of a ‘medieval’ affliction that threatens to drag her into darkness. Whether this conception aids Isabelle in managing her anxiety or in fact renders it even more insurmountable is a question the novel deftly negotiates but does not definitively answer.

Some of the novel’s supporting cast – Isabelle’s ageing, blandly lecherous boss Jack and his conveniently bitchy wife Kate – are less convincingly drawn than its well-realised central protagonist. On the other hand, there is the elderly Mrs Graham, with whom Isabelle broaches a warm and respectful friendship, and who feels alive on the page, her self-sufficient and generous nature battling with her encroaching frailty. And while there is not the same finely tuned ear for dialogue here that we find in Ulman’s punchy exchanges, Jones displays a real facility for evoking the immediacy of physical sensation. The crushing force of a panic attack and the inexorable pull of a depressive episode are made viscerally real.

In its second half, Jones’s novel shifts its geographical focus and we find ourselves in the morning-quiet streets of Prague, as Isabelle indulges her lifelong obsession with this famed city and confronts ‘The Black Place’ at what she perceives to be its ‘medieval’ source. Geographically removed from the consequences of her destructive behaviour, Isabelle is for the first time able to look outside herself, seeing in everything the presence of history. The city’s ancient roots are as real to her as the still-living victims of its twentieth century occupation, first by the Nazis and later by the Soviets. At first I found myself wondering why Jones had taken us here, so foreign did these streets and byways feel to the hot and gritty light of Isabelle’s Perth home. Yet as Isabelle’s psychological demons become increasingly intertwined in her exhausted mind with the spectre of historical atrocity, in what she acknowledges to be ‘the gross conflation of her personal sorrows with the ugliness of the twentieth century’, she forges a tangible link between these two settings. If there is, indeed, something gross in this conflation, demonstrating as it does Isabelle’s profound solipsism, there is also something disconcerting in the abruptness with which the novel shifts in its final pages from the enormity of collective suffering to the optimism of new romance.  Readers may resist the easiness of this ending, even though it leaves us with some fruitfully unanswered questions.

If depression and anxiety are for Isabelle external to the self, a malevolent force to be held at bay, mental illness manifests in Emily Bitto’s The Strays as a kind of inheritance, whether by means of nature or nurture. Family, in all its permutations, is at the very centre of Bitto’s vivid and seductive historical portrait of an experimental artistic clique in 1930s Melbourne. The novel is narrated by an imaginative only child, Lily, who is drawn into the world of the Melbourne Modern Art Group through a fierce friendship with Eva, the daughter of its leading light, Evan Trentham. The physical beauty and lively energy of the Trentham’s house and gardens is tangible; the threat of dysfunction is only a subtle undertone for several of the novel’s opening chapters. Bitto uses the framing device of a much older Lily’s newly surfaced memories to move seamlessly back and forth between the romance of childhood and the hindsight of adulthood

Despite her status as an observer of the Trentham’s and a recorder of their secrets, their attributes and their failings, Lily is nonetheless blind to much that characterises them. Eva is described as ‘truly … a kind person’, despite treating her sister Heloise with a dismissiveness that is tantamount to cruelty. It takes Lily nearly a lifetime to recognise the legacy of Eva’s mother, Helena, in her best friend’s selfishness, and to understand the skill with which Eva is able to manipulate others. Bitto balances the intimacy of Lily’s first-person narrative with an awareness of the destructive family dynamics, which can be gleaned from the periphery of her vision. If some things are opaque to Lily, the strange status of her own presence in the house as visitor-cum-resident is now and then made pointedly apparent. When she is invited – or perhaps simply allowed – by Helena to extend her stay in the Trenthams’ sprawling house, it is with the barbed declaration ‘I hardly even notice that you’re here.’

The Strays is as much the story of the Trentham children as of the artistic commune that develops around them as they move into adolescence. Bitto has with consummate skill captured the allure of this adult world for a young girl. Eva is seduced by its unfettered devotion to the creative impulse – and only gradually becomes cognisant of its dangerous fault-lines. Fact blends elegantly here with fiction, as real-world characters from the history of Australian modernist art – Dr H. V. Evatt and his wife Mary Alice, famous patrons of Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan; the critic James MacDonald – are incorporated into a deeply personal narrative of friendship, loneliness and memory. One might be tempted to accuse Bitto of reinforcing the age-old stereotype of the erratic, destructive, promiscuous artist, were it not for the presence in her novel of equally talented peers whose quiet industry and kind intelligence finds them pushed to the periphery of the Trenthams’ irresistible drama.

Lily watches from the margins as the household’s delicate balance of ego and envy, collaboration and competition, is lost. Like the errant growth of an untended garden, the proliferation of differences, disagreements and slights accumulate until they must, it seems, tip over into destruction:

In a house, as in a garden, there is point when over-mingling can occur. At first, when the new plants are dug in, there is too much space between them. They seem artificial, temporary. Then, as they grow, the bed find a point of balance, the taller trees occupying the upper layers, the sprawling shrubs – the hydrangeas, buddleia, pittosporum – filling out the middle, and the small bulbs and ground covers punctuating the underspaces. Then, without warning, equilibrium is lost. A rampant jasmine covers an adolescent tree; a hydrangea thrives, forcing out a lilly pilly that struggles for light between a spreading magnolia. The spaces are subsumed.

What cannot be overlooked here is the implication that one can only thrive at the expense of another. Eva can only forge a path through the tumult of her home life if she leaves Lily and their intimacy behind her in childhood; Heloise must make her own claim on the man whom Eva cherishes. Even Lily herself, as she acknowledges, cannot

damp the hot envy that tinged my love for Eva with a desire to see her fail in some way. To want what she had.

In the artistic, egotistic and sexual rivalry between mentor and protégé, rebellion is perhaps inevitable. As one who is sometimes an observer, sometimes a participant, Lily is able to conjure the fascination, the discord and the tragedy of this singular family, without herself being entirely subsumed by its decline. Despite her adoration and envy of Eva – whose bustling, restless and adventurous home life is the antithesis of her own solitary childhood – Lily proves able to find something sustainable in this creative whirlwind; something which need not come at the expense of others. There is an unobtrusive circularity to this seductive, thoughtful and moving narrative, which returns at its close to the peculiar intimacy of young women’s friendships. The formative power of adolescent experience, and the influence upon us of those with whom we share that experience, is central to Bitto’s novel – as it is to more than one of Ulman’s short stories.

There is much to set these four books apart from one another – Ulman’s sardonic, sparse style and energetic dialogue might seem on first glance to share little with Finn’s conversational, discursive prose, as Jones’s solipsistic protagonist might seem to have little in common with Bitto’s observant, self-effacing Lily. Yet if there is any quality that the protagonists of these diverse texts – stories of seduction, sexuality, motherhood, creativity, mental illness, friendship and family – can be said to share, it is that as each is thrown upon her own emotional resources, she will prove herself to be a great deal stronger than she might have supposed.