Friday, July 04, 2008

Beach read

I picked up this thin volume of stories, the cover of which is now rather yellowed and soiled, in the Strand Bookstore sometime in 1976 or 1977, after hearing the author read selections on WBAI radio. All I knew about Glenda Adams (until recently, when I read that she had died about a year ago) was what it said in the author bio on the back cover, that she was born in Sydney, Australia in 1939, was the Associate Director of something called Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and that she lived in New York City with her daughter. Adams went on to publish several other works of fiction, one of which, Dancing on Coral, won the Miles Franklin Award in 1987, but I've never happened across any of them.

Australia always seems to have more than its share of venomous creatures, and these stories fit in quite nicely. In most of them someone has something decidedly nasty done to them by someone else. Adams's view of family life and relations between men and women is unsparingly bleak, and after reading stories like “Wedding” and “The Circle” it's not surprising that her bio says that she lived “with her daughter” and not “with her husband and their daughter.”

In what may be the most pointedly feminist story in the book (and also one of the best) a woman is given instructions in how to behave “like a princess,” which is apparently what she is. After having been elaborately dressed by several attendants, she is brought before a man who is to serve as her tutor. He teaches her the precise rules of etiquette of the three languages (high, low, and middle) and three conversations (host, guest, and in transit) she will need to comport herself properly, and then is put to a series of tests.

In the first test, she must shake hands with thousands of people and converse with them, “using the host conversation in the high language.” Only at the end does she notice that her hands are badly swollen from so many handshakes. She feels no pain, and she has not cried out: she has passed the test.

For her next challenge she must undertake a long journey by train, in a carriage jammed with passengers. She travels incognito, because “it would make other people uncomfortable and ashamed” were she to travel as a princess. The only concessions to her true status are the rings on her right hand, which she keeps carefully concealed, and her earrings. Only after she arrives at her destination does she discover that during the overnight passage thieves had sliced off her earlobes to steal the earrings. She had felt nothing. Once again, she has passed the test.

Finally she takes another journey, this time by sea, and arrives at a small island with a hill in the middle. At the end of the story she sits on the hill, gazing at the ground.
I now found that my body was hollow. And inside myself I discovered a small amount of room, a private space in which to move.
But in the best story in the volume, “Sea,” the young narrator is not a passive victim but a destroying angel. From the very beginning it's clear that her arrival does not bode well, at least for the male members of her family.
I was born within the sound of the waves, in a house on a sandstone cliff. It was the hottest night of the century.

The night I was born my father went swimming. It was the last time he ever went into the water.
Well, not quite the last time, as we shall learn. But on that night her father, a strong and avid swimmer, goes for a swim in the ocean and soon finds himself heading farther and farther away from shore. Miles out, he is finally pulled from the water by a fishing boat, despite his protestation that he is not tired and intends to swim on to New Zealand, “and if possible Chile.” He is turned over to the police, put under observation, then released to the family a day later.
After that, my father would go only to the water's edge. He refused to wear, or even own, a bathing suit, nor would he wear shorts or go without a shirt on summer days. Sometimes he took off his shoes and socks and rolled his trousers above his ankles and walked along the beach or around the rocks, letting the sea lap at his feet.

I never saw any part of his body except his head, his hands and his feet.
After the narrator is born a son follows. The two children have little in common. The boy is bronzed, good-natured, and a good swimmer; the girl is pale, taciturn, and has no interest in the water. She also has a way of unnerving people, particularly her father:
My father often stood by the window and watched the sea. Some mornings he went to the phone box at the terminus down at the bay and called his office to say he was sick. Then he would stay by the window all day watching the sea, frowning.

I, too, watched the sea, and I was able to stay very still beside the window for long periods of time.

My father never liked me to come near him, especially when he stood by the window. I had to choose a window in another room for myself. If I refused to leave him alone, he would slam out of the room and often right out of the house, leaving rattling floors and doors behind him.

On occasion, however, he became so consumed with watching that I was able to move quietly into the room and remain near him for hours without his hearing or feeling me.

People often remarked that it was most unusual for a child to be able to stay still and quiet for more than a minute or two. People said I was an unusual child, and they were always very glad to turn to my little brother.
One morning the two children go down to the sea, where the narrator's talent for storytelling leads to a horrific outcome. Wrapped in an old bedspread to shield herself from the sun, she asks him how long he thinks the longest story is. He says an hour or two at most, and she tells him that she knows “a story that lasts until the sun goes down.” When he doubts this, she agrees to tell it to him — but only after he promises to listen to the entire story from start to finish.
He lay down on the sand beside me on his stomach. He lay rigid and attentive.

And I closed my eyes and told a story that contained one sentence for every grain of salt in the sea.

I opened my eyes when my father grabbed my shoulders and shook me and slapped me many times over the head.

“You've gone and killed your little brother,” he said. “Is no one safe with you?”

The shadow of my sunhat stretched out in front of me and was long enough to be almost touched by the water. The sun was on its way behind the houses on the hill behind the beach.

My brother lay on the sand beside me. His body was swollen and had changed from nut brown to deep red. His mouth had fallen open and sand was clinging to his lips and tongue. But he was not dead.

For two weeks my brother lay on his stomach in bed. The doctor came every day to treat him for sunstroke and dress the burns on his back.

When the wounds began to heal, it became clear that the sun had left behind dark brown spots and scars, all over his beautiful back.
After he recovers, the boy gives his sister wide berth. As soon as he is old enough he leaves school and moves out, sending an occasional postcard home. In time the family moves inland, away from the sea. The narrator, older now, meets a boy with a car, and sometimes comes home late at night. This leads to a sudden, yet inevitable, ending.
“What do you think you're doing,” he screamed, “staying out till all hours?”

I said nothing. “You should be thinking of your studies and your exams,” he said, “not boys.”

I smiled at him.

He strode over to my bed and shook me.

I only smiled.

He kept on holding my shoulders.

“You're enough to drive a man out of his mind,” he said.

He moved his hands to my neck. He touched my ears and my head. Then he put his hands over his face.

“I don't know why I try to keep on living,” he cried.

“So why do you?” I asked.

He drowned three weeks later.
Lies and Stories was published by the Inwood Press, which I'm sure is long defunct. My copy has a little “Review Copy” slip laid in, with the publication date of October 15, 1976.

1 comment:

Caitlin Adams said...

I am that daughter--and you found my piece about the story in this collection ( Your piece is lovely, and I appreciate reading anything about my mother and her work. It probably won't surprise you to know that "The Hollow Woman" appeared in the first issue of Ms. Magazine, the Wonder Woman one in 1972. You make some very interesting observations about her stories and about the bio (indeed, it was just the two of us, though my father loved in NYC, too).