Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2021

Dancing on Coral, by Glenda Adams

Winner of the Miles Franklin award in 1987, Dancing on Coral is a witty, picaresque satire of the 1960s.  Set partly in Sydney and partly in New York along with an interlude at sea, it was the second novel of Glenda Adams (1939-2007).

So who was this Australian author whose novel won our most prestigious award, from a shortlist of notable Australian authors such as Murray Bail, David Ireland, Nancy Phelan and Nicholas Hasluck? 

Except for a brief paragraph about Glenda Adams in my copy of The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985, i.e. before the MF win)— she is not listed in any of my reference books.  Not in The PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature (1983), i.e. after her short story collections Lies and Stories (1976) and The Hottest Night of the Century (1979) and also after her debut novel Games of the Strong (1982).  She doesn’t get a mention in Vernay’s Brief Take on the Australian Novel (2016) nor The Greatest Australian Novels—a Panorama (2009), and she’s not included in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library (2012), nor in Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics, (2007).

But Dancing on Coral wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  Wikipedia, where Adams does have an entry, tells me that she was born in Sydney and her expat career began with a scholarship to Columbia University, from which she graduated in 1965.  She was a journalist, author, scriptwriter and teacher of creative writing, and her master of arts writing program at UTS became a model for postgraduate writing programs throughout Australia.  Wikipedia goes on to say:

Adams’ work is found in her own books and short story collections, in numerous short story anthologies, and in journals and magazines. Her essays, stories and articles have been published in, among other magazines, MeanjinThe New York Times Book ReviewPanoramaQuadrantSoutherlyWesterlyThe Sydney Morning HeraldThe Observer and The Village Voice.

While at Columbia University, she joined a fiction workshop and started writing using her real name, after using a male name prior to that to prevent her friends knowing she was writing fiction. Her short stories were published in such magazines as Ms.The Village Voice and Harper’s.

After 16 years away, she returned to Australia and became writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, the University of Adelaide, and Macquarie University. Her literary friends included Australians Robert Drewe and Kate Grenville (who she supervised as a graduate student at the University of Technology, Sydney), and the American Grace Paley. Wikipedia Glenda Adams page, lightly edited to remove links & footnotes, viewed 21/1/21)

In addition to Dancing on Coral (which also won a Special Award in the 1987 NSW Premier’s Literary Award), her other novels include her debut Games of the Strong (1982); and Longleg (1990, which won the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction, was joint winner of the 1990 Age Book of the Year for imaginative writing and was shortlisted for the 1991 Miles Franklin Award).  The Tempest of Clemenza (1996) was her last novel but she was not forgotten.  She was posthumously awarded the ASA Medal in 2007 after her death from ovarian cancer, and the NSW Premier’s Award for New Fiction is named after her.

Tantalisingly, the reference in the Oxford has more to say about her writing.

Several of the fourteen stories of The Hottest Night of the Century concern family and school life in Australia; the later stories are influenced by the experimental form and heavy symbolism of some contemporary American fiction. Games of the Strong is a complex novel with strong overtones of the classic Orwellian ‘1984’ personal dilemma that sometimes surfaces in conditions of extremist political identification and group rhetoric.  (The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews,1985, p. 16)

Adams certainly has fun satirising group rhetoric in Dancing on Coral.  Dated by allusions to the late 1950s by her protagonist Lark Watters’ visit to the cinema to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and her father’s ambition to be on the Jack Davey 1950s radio show, Dancing on Coral pokes fun at the university set exemplified by the ‘Sydney Push’.   What I know of the them is derived from my reading of Richard Appleton’s Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push, but the poseurs, inane babble and heavy drinking of Dancing on Coral seem authentic.

Lark had watched Donna Bird for several years as she floated around the quadrangle, looking like some sort of court jester, always arguing and waving her arms about, always surrounded by groups of the important students—the libertarian who wore no shoes and tied his khaki trousers with a piece of rope and wrote lewd columns for the newspaper; the architecture student who was caught by a security guard on the floor of the library stacks with the psychology fresher; the leader of the student conservative club who was known only by his initials. (p.22)

Lark stumbles into this bunch of pseudo-intellectuals when she meets her first American.  Sprung at the cash register for hiding an extra pat of butter under her roll to save the extra penny, she is defended by Tom Brown:

“Good for you,” he said, “fighting the system like that.  Butter belongs to the people.  Butter and guns and art.  They should be free, and if they’re not, the people should take them.” (p.24)

Tom is studying urban anthropology.  He’s a social theorist and, in his spare time, a critic of society.  And when Lark timidly suggests that the ‘anthropological’ activities of Tom’s mentor Manfred Bird in the Pacific makes him a plunderer, stealing art from societies that couldn’t protect themselves’, she is promptly patronised by Bird’s daughter Donna (who turns out to be Lark’s nemesis):

“It’s called preservation,” said Donna quickly.  “Sometimes the natives just threw away the stuff, their funerary carvings and so on. The Rockefellers and my father just wanted to preserve art.  Art is what matters.” (p.27-8)

Tom suggests that they take Lark on as a ‘project.’

“She’s young and inexperienced,” said Tom to Donna, at the same time patting Lark’s hand in a fatherly way.  He turned back to Lark.  “Donna should know,” he said gently, like a doctor at an invalid’s bedside.  “After all, she’s the one who knows them all.  Say,” and he turned back to Donna Bird, “what say we take her in hand.” (p.28)

Well, they do, and it mostly consists of getting involved in dubious pranks, infantile protests, a lot of long-winded pompous rhetoric from Tom while Lark fends off drunken advances from young men who lecture her about not perpetuating outdated morality.

Lark doesn’t really know what she wants to do but the one thing that she craves, is to leave Australia.  Her parents are eccentrics but life, as far as she can tell, is lived elsewhere, and so she applies uselessly for jobs which offer free travel.  Her interview at Qantas is cringeworthy: she is told that “in addition to a deep desire to serve others, our hostesses have to be good-looking girls.  The best of the crop.” It’s no better in an interview at The Daily Mirror where her degree and her French and her knowledge of world affairs are dismissed as irrelevant:

“Listen girlie, you’re too educated, you’re too big for your boots. You might look like a schoolgirl, but actually you’re already too old,” he held up his hand in case Lark was about to protest, “and you’re a girl.”

[…]

“Our reporters start with us at sixteen and by the time they’re twenty-one they’re old hands.  And girls only get into trouble.,  Or they get married.  Same thing.  You can’t count on them. And none of my men want to work with girls.” (p.59)

Somehow she survives all this only to succumb to the only way to escape Australia: she agrees to travel by freighter with Donna Bird to meet up with Tom Brown in the US on a freighter.

The scene which gives the novel its title implies a moment of fun and laughter, but that’s not how it was.  Lark is actually terrified when the captain stops in the middle of the Pacific to give Lark and her hateful fellow-passenger Donna Bird the opportunity to paddle on a coral reef.  In this often comic coming-of-age novel Lark has not yet emerged from the timidity which hampers all her interactions, and she lets herself be steered into doing things that she doesn’t really want to do.  But though she seems incurably naïve and romantic, the novel plots the arousal of courage, and a wiser interpretation of the way her ‘mentors’ behave.

Some droll sequences border on absurdism as Adams critiques aspects of life both in Australia and in America.  The wedding and subsequent ‘trial’ on the street outside the New York Apartment are hilarious, and there’s some enjoyable schadenfreude in the concluding pages as well.  I’m really pleased that this novel won the Miles Franklin, otherwise I might never have come across it.

Reading Glenda Adams‘ is the blog of Caitlin, Glenda Adams’ daughter, and I was moved more than I can say by a post at Caitlin’s other blog ‘Slippery Crockery’ which showcases some of her mother’s brooches.

Author: Glenda Adams
Title: Dancing on Coral
Publisher: Viking Penguin, New York, 1987
ISBN: 03163087
Source: personal library, Miles Franklin winners collection

Available in Text Classics in good bookshops everywhere and at Fishpond: Dancing on Coral (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. Have this on my bookshelves so it’s got to be read. Sounds too good to miss. Another talent not given their due attention and am sorry have not explored her before although had heard of her but not that she won a Miles Franklin. Very remiss of me.

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    • I look forward to hearing what you think of it. It has mixed reviews at Goodreads, but I think it’s a novel that needs a sense of humour, and maybe some of the allusions are lost on younger readers…
      Sue (WG) has read it, some time ago, with her book group. It will be interesting to see if she can remember what they thought of it too.

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  2. I have a copy and will get to it eventually. For what it is worth it is very easy to find in 2nd hand book shops so I presume it sold well and if so deservedly so based on your review Lisa.

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    • That’s interesting… I was so pleased to find the reissue, I didn’t think to look for second-hand sources.
      I must admit, I would like to read the introduction in the Text Classics series. I shall have to see if they have it at the library:)

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  3. You’re getting some value out of your quest to read all the MF winners (except The Hand that signed the Paper).

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    • According to my Goodreads shelf, which is probably not up to date, I have 11 to go.
      But The Hand is not the only one I shan’t be reading, some of the more recent voyeuristic and distasteful wins aren’t on my shelf either.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Haha…not only is she too old but she’s also a girl. *snorts* Ahh, that sounds like a bit of fun. I imagine that reading through the Miles Franklin awards would be like reading through the Canadian Governor General’s awards. Not officially one of my projects. You’re getting awfully close to the end of this one of yours though!

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    • Well, from what I’ve read from your awards, you could do worse, there’s some fine reading there.
      But the MF, which started in 1957, has also introduced me to an Australia I didn’t know. My reading went from children’s books (mostly English), to my parents’ library (mostly English & the classics), to university (English poetry and the development of the novel) and then to feminism and the diverting novels of Fay Weldon et al. Award-winning Australian realism, for all that people mock it now, taught me about the Australia of the 40s, 50s and 60s; while Australian modernism explored some mighty themes, giving the lie to the oft-stated criticism that Australia was a cultural wasteland until 1975.
      I haven’t reviewed most of the MF winners here, so I have a vague plan to do some more reviews from the (reading journal) archive in due course.

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  5. My reading group read this in the first 12 months of our existence, because, as I remember correctly, a short story of hers appeared in our very first book, an anthology called Room to move. I remember we enjoyed the book a lot, and being sad when she died way too young.

    However, I don’t remember a lot about the story now, which is the case with too many books read 30+ years ago!

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    • Yes, often what we remember is the feeling, an enduring gift from the author.

      Liked by 1 person


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