University of Queensland Press, $29.95 hb, 142pp, 0702222461
Barbara Hanrahan has set much of her work on studies of childhood, sometimes childhood which is involved with fantasy and evil. Always, however, the children are presented through their memories of the minutiae of daily life, vignettes formed by detail, which is vividly presented, conveying the remembered sights, sounds, and smells of childhood and adolescence. Amongst the pictures of plants and pets, houses and relatives, one finds often rather scrofulous details; the hairs in grandpa’s nose, the squeezing of grandma’s blackheads, the smell in the pit dunny, the scurf on aunt’s scalp, the wetting of a bed, the snot discards on the carpet, the persistence of the dog’s penis, glimpses of adult (usually unattractive) bodies, spiedon sexual activity, and the groping of old men under girls’ skirts.
In this study of the growing to adulthood of a girl from a poor Chinese family, forced by the wars to move from Canton to Macao, back to Canton, and then to Hong Kong, Ms Hanrahan has endeavoured sympathetically to portray the physical and emotional constraints of such a life. As a picture it succeeds. The author has used some spareness of expression to convey the essentials. Wing-yee recounts not only the poverty and hardship, but the inhibitions, superstitions, traditional forms, and frequent harshness of life in a Chinese family. Through it all there comes a picture of a pleasant, good-natured, and not very bright child, who struggles and works hard to contribute to the family.