Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2015

Sensational Snippets: The Hands, by Stephen Orr

The HandsBy coincidence, Emma from Book Around the Corner in France, recently requested some suggestions for books set in Western Australia, and I just happen to be reading Stephen Orr’s new novel The Hands: An Australian Pastoral.  Orr is from South Australia, not the west, but this novel is set in marginal farming country on the cusp of the Nullarbor Plain that spans over a thousand kilometres from east to west  – a vast tract of featureless land that covers a great swathe of South Australia and Western Australia.  Marginal land like this, bleak and dispiriting country to those trying vainly to make a living there, has a savage beauty that has broken many a farmer’s heart.  I think Orr’s novel certainly conveys a sense of outback life …

Here, just for you, Emma, are some descriptions of the land, from Orr’s discerning pen:

They returned to the ute.  Bundeena was marginal country.  It could carry cattle, sparsely.  To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man – following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor – had given up on agriculture.  Most men, at least.  Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years.  This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway.  On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing.  They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.  (p. 4)

I try to read this description of the house as Emma might, with images of the French countryside in my mind:

Then he went out through the sliding doors to the front of the house with its view from the hill, down the slope of old bloodwoods.  ‘Harry!’ he called, but there was no response.

He stood on the wide porch which, although at the front of the house, was really the back, away from the chaos of the compound.  Broken tiles.  A bull-nosed verandah that leaked, although they knew where to sit to stay dry.  There were several old chairs – wicker, tube-steel, a fluffy stool from Carelyn’s ABBA days – and an old tranny, although there was no signal for it to pick up.

This is where they’d come on hot evenings to escape the house, to watch distant freight trains or the Indian Pacific, scurrying between oceans.  They’d watch them come into view, and an hour later, disappear.  They’d follow their every painful inch, as if it were the first time they’d ever seen a train.



He’d warned him so many times: stay within calling distance of the house.  He could remember a night when Harry was three or four, when it was pelting down (the first time in years), the fork-lightning picking up the glint of the railway tracks, strobing the cattle-eye desert.  And there he was standing in this same spot, calling out ‘Harry, where are yer?’ (p. 12)

A big blow comes in, a north-westerly at first, smelling of dry grass.  They’re in for a blasting.

At one point, he looked out of the window and noticed the sandstorm.  ‘Wow, that’s bad,’ he managed, looking at Trevor.

Who, by now, had consulted the satellite image.  He’d seen the front moving east, darkening everything in its path, Bundeena descending into days of blight; day turning to night, and the generator taking over from the solar panels (themselves sand-blasted clean); moods darkening, supplies of DVDs taken out of the cupboard and most of all, like Murray, he’d seen his stock sheltering beside the skeletons of gidgee trees, waiting.

By evening the storm was shaking the eaves, coming in and under the house and up through the gaps in the floorboards.  Trevor stood looking out of the front window and saw sheets of iron blowing across the flats.  Waited, consulting his watch.  Saw the hazy, dot-dash yellow lights of the Indian Pacific.  Watched it moving, consumed and spat out by the storm until it was gone, in the dust.

They went to bed and fell asleep to the accompaniment of rattling iron.  (p. 45)

Even when we don’t live in these desolate places ourselves, they are part of our Australian consciousness.  They are part of the Australian soul…

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral, by Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press, 2015, ISBN 9781743053430


  1. I really like this prose, another one requested from the library.


    • Great! (I’m always pestering my library to buy new books for me too *grin*)


  2. Thanks for this Lisa. It reminds me of the Mojave desert. Nothing like the French countryside, for sure!


    • I wanted to find another one for you, which has a superb description of the beach at Cottlesoe and a totally different view of WA, but I can’t remember which of two books it was in, and I think I must have given away both of them, what a pity!


  3. ‘They are part of the Australian soul.’ Beautifully put, Lisa.


    • It’s true, though, isn’t it? I mean, we are forever seeing images of this kind of country on the news, every time there’s yet another drought…
      And I will never, ever forget that sandstorm that rolled into Melbourne in 1983. I was a city girl, and I’d never seen or heard of such a thing, and I thought it was the end of the world.


    • Agree. I think that’s why my recent trip to Uluru and King’s Canyon resonated so much. Just driving those long long roads and seeing all that red dirt and all those desert oaks made me feel emotional in a way I couldn’t quite comprehend. But that’s what it was: that landscape is part of my soul.


      • I haven’t done that trip, but I took a bus across the Nullarbor because I wanted to see it, and experience the length of it. It was surreal and magical and vaguely unnerving all at the same time. (Mind you, once was enough, I flew back home!)


  4. The train could only be in view for an hour if they could see 100 km of track at once, which is nonsense. Without doing the maths I imagine the maximum distance you can see in flat country – and unlike the Hay Plains for instance the Nularbor is not totally flat – is no more than 30 km.


    • I don’t know about that… it depends how you interpret it. I can remember being in a town in outback Qld when a train went through, and we made fools of ourselves waiting patiently at the crossing while all the locals went for a beer, because that train was soooo long and sooooo slow took well over half an hour to go past.


  5. […] The Hands, an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr, see my review and a Sensational Snippet […]


  6. […] The Hands, an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press, see my review and a Sensational Snippet […]


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