Glenda Adams won the Miles Franklin in 1987 for Dancing On Coral, but until Text Classics republished it in 2013 it was hard to get it or her other prize-winning novel Longleg, which also won two major awards. Why has she faded into obscurity? Maybe it was because she lived many years of her life in the US, and the Australian literary establishment gets a bit sniffy about that.
I’m here to tell you that you should get your hands on Dancing On Coral without further ado. It has what I think of as a uniquely Australian surreal eye on the ordinary, it’s a cool and deadly satire on the hippiespeak of the 1960’s, and it has a wonderful heroine, an innocent abroad who, of course, grows up. “A comic epic”, Elizabeth Jolley called it.
Lark Watter, daughter of the suburban Don Quixote Henry and his pragmatic wife, has been running away from home regularly since the age of four.
“I’m going now,” she often said, taking the suitcase and the umbrella, standing at the front door.
“She’s going now,” said Henry Watter, if he said anything at all. Or, “It’s a tricky place, the world. You’ve got to be sharp to manage it.”
“Leave her be, she’ll be back,” said Mrs Watter. “This is her home. She knows that.”
At university Lark falls under the spell of the smug American academic Tom and follows him to America in the company of Tom’s friend Donna Bird, one of fiction’s most ghastly females. Their trip on a cargo ship, which includes the dancing on coral episode, is a slapstick masterpiece, but there’s an undercurrent of menace that Lark only understands much later on. Lark does manage to ensnare the self-absorbed Tom into marriage:
“I imagine that you, Tom, agree to take,” he hesitated, unsure of her name, “Lark – is it? – for your wife, and Lark, I imagine that you don’t mind taking Tom for your husband, right?”
Both Lark and Tom nodded and said, “Right.”
“If anyone has any objections, now’s the time to say so,” said the minister….
“Then I guess you are man and wife.” He looked around. “Hey,” he added, “That’s neat-o, keen-o, far out and groovy.”
And that was that.
Everything is on Tom’s terms, of course, and Lark only regrets that she hasn’t got “a first class mind” as so many of his previous girlfriends had, apparently. His mentor Manfred Bird is an anthropologist who steals native artefacts to “preserve” them and destroys statues he considers obscene. Apart from Tom and his daughter Donna, he has a devoted acolyte in his wife Portia, a former student and now mother of three children who are constantly under “thrit of dith” (Portia is from New Zealand) if they disturb him.
For all the fun, though, there’s a real stability at the base of the narrative. Lark’s upbringing may have been eccentric, but there’s no doubt of her parents’ feeling for her, and as her mother says in the end, “you have made your own way in this tricky world”.
I can’t do better than quote Barbara Jefferis: “There is no other Australian novelist writing at present with such a finely juudged mixture of zany wit and unforced wisdom, with such a control of character and material, such urbanity and exuberance.”