Dancing on Coral is one of the new Text Classics re-released to promote forgotten classics of Australian literature. I’ve only read one Glenda Adams book before – Longleg.
Dancing on Coral won the Miles Franklin award in 1987 and is set in Australia and the US in the mid sixties and what an odd little book it is. Glenda Adams travelled to the US at the time the book was written and ended up living there for much of her adult life before she returned to Australia.
Dancing on Coral follows Lark Watter, a university student in Sydney who is desperate to escape her parents and seek adventure and love out in the world. She meets Tom, a sophisticated American student, who she decides she loves. Also figuring large in the story is Donna Bird, the daughter of Tom’s American mentor, a strongly portrayed ridiculous character who gets around in a sun visor and writes in green ink. Much of the story focuses on Donna and Lark’s trip across the world to New York on a freight ship as the only passengers. The title gives its name to one crazy extended scene in the middle of the book. Most of the action then focuses on Lark’s experiences in New York with Donna’s larcenous anthropologist father, and meeting an old Sydney friend who she might have been better off with than the dreadful Tom.
This book is a real departure for me because its satire, something I very rarely read. The last one I tackled was Michael Frayne’s ‘Towards the end of morning’, which takes aim at Fleet street newspapers. Dancing on Coral takes down sixities intellectuals, conspiracies, protests and happenings. But like all good satire, there’s usually a heart-breaking undertone, and for me this comes with the description of Lark’s parents. Her long suffering mother puts up with a husband who spends his time either building a mysterious wooden box in the basement or training himself for a radio quiz show that will give him his ticket to England and out of his miserable life.
The characters dialogue and ideas are all deliberately overblown and ridiculous, such that the reader is invited to be in on the joke that the characters themselves can’t see. But there’s a strong feminist message in here. Says Lark’s mother, who persuades her to finish her degree – ‘Don’t you value security? Don’t you value money? A penniless woman is quickly a victim. People take advantage. She loses her dignity. Look at me.’
I’m not sure I like this one and I don’t think that’s because its satire. There’s somehow not enough weight to the characters or their world for the full force of their ridiculousness to come across. Kingsley Amis, one of the most famous satirical novelists, seem to draw the reader in more fully to the characters and their lives than this one does.