Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2015

The Hands, by Stephen Orr

The HandsLast week, when I posted some Sensational Snippets from Stephen Orr’s new novel The Hands I was preoccupied by his evocation of a pitiless landscape in marginal country on the edge of the Nullarbor.  But now that I have finished the novel, I have been mulling over his unsettling dissection of relationships in a particular rural context.  I have been haunted by the sense of entrapment and the incapacity of the novel’s characters to express themselves and their inchoate desires.

I’ll probably get myself into trouble with this generalisation, but I think that rural fathers have a preoccupation with inheritance.  They have an expectation that a son will take over the farm so that it stays in the family.  This son is sometimes a Chosen One rather than the traditional eldest, and sometimes a conscript.  Amongst the most unsentimental of men, there is a sentimental attachment to this kind of family business that doesn’t seem to apply to other kinds of family business in the same way, and there is an implied or express moral imperative for the Chosen One to set aside any other preferences or ambitions in the service of ‘keeping it in the family’.  A profitable farm can therefore cause tensions between siblings when The One inherits it all, but an unprofitable or marginal farm can be a millstone around the neck from which other siblings are grateful to escape.  An only son in this situation has very little choice if not to cause irreparable damage to the fabric of the family.

In Orr’s novel, the farm has been in the family for generations.  If Bundeena was ever profitable it isn’t now and the debt situation is so dire that the bank hesitates to sell them up because they wouldn’t get any money for the place anyway.  (The Hands isn’t IMO CliFi but there is an awareness that climate change is impacting on whatever viability the farm once had).  But old Murray won’t contemplate walking away: his son Trevor is running the farm without much say in how things are, and it is expected that Aiden, one of Trevor’s two sons will take over after that.  But that’s a hopeless future, and even the boy knows it.

The power that Murray wields is a current that arcs through this novel.  It’s not just that this old man holds the deeds and Trevor can’t sell off a portion of the land that someone does want to buy.  This ownership of the land grants Murray the power to bully and to sabotage, and so he does.  He’s been doing it for years, and he has worn down the family so much that even Harry, the younger boy, realises the futility of saying anything in reply or challenging what is being said or done.  Although there are significant female characters (the boys’ mother Carelyn, their Aunty Fay and Trevor’s girlfriend Gaby), The Hands resonates with suppressed male competitiveness and the conversations that take place rarely express what is being thought.  Orr deftly weaves the narration between multiple third person points-of-view and their internal monologues amplify what is actually said.  Sometimes, nothing is said at all:

Trevor came up with a total but decided it couldn’t be right.  He started entering the numbers again.  Could feel his father looking at him, thinking of words, waiting, returning to his letter.  He knew he was probably sorry, somehow, but would never say it.  Hadn’t said a word during the drive home, hadn’t even looked at him the rest of the evening, hadn’t acknowledged him all morning.

I’m the one who should be pissed off, he thought, glancing up at him, watching his clumsy fingers crushing the paper.  I’m the one waiting for an apology.

Their eyes met.  He shook his head but Murray wouldn’t be drawn.  You old misery, he thought.  It’d never occur to you, would it?  Just to say it? (p. 213)

The tragedy of it is Trevor’s entrapment.  He tries working off farm to raise a bit of extra money, but gives up in despair because he can’t stand working for someone else and he realises that whatever extra money he makes isn’t going to make any difference to their circumstances anyway.  He doesn’t have any authority on the farm and his father is determined to sabotage any prospects of a happier life.  Trevor is devastated when Aiden refuses to finish school because that means that he too has limited choices for the future.  Harry, too young to be despatched to boarding school just yet, struggles with the relevance of the curriculum to the life he leads on the farm, but he’s still biddable.  Aiden, on the other hand, makes a hasty decision in the wake of the tragedy that befalls the family and that crushes Trevor’s hope that life might at least be different for him.

An interesting counterpoint to this sense of entrapment is the farm as a home for Chris.  Chris is born ‘not-quite-right’ and when Aunty Fay’s marriage fails, she brings him to live on the farm.  Whereas town life would offer him very little, on the farm the family finds useful things for him to do and on his own initiative he develops ways to satisfy his obsessions that don’t bother anybody.  While Murray is often unkind to him and rude about him, Chris seems mostly immune to it and the rest of the family accepts him comfortably for what he is.

The other thread that interested me was the place of art in these men’s lives.  Harry and Aiden like to paint, and use an old car as a place to make a mural.  Trevor retreats to his shed to carve realistic hands of his children.  These boys and their father cook too – they are not stereotypical hyper-masculine farming blokes, although there are aspects of their lives that are brutal.

There are many threads to this novel: the lasting impact of WW1 on ensuing generations; secrets and sacrifices; shame and unspoken grief.  But the loneliness of a man in despair makes him very vulnerable in a place where just walking out into nothingness is a perilous option, and The Hands makes real the plight of many farming families today.  The sub-title is ironic: A pastoral is an idealised version of country life, and there is nothing idealised about the world that these characters inhabit, except for Murray’s head-in-the-sand dreams…

This is my fourth novel by Stephen Orr, and I think it’s the best one yet.

Update 10/4/16

As you can see from comments below, Emma from Book Around the Corner in France was interested in this title, and her review – with a fascinating French perspective – was timed perfectly to coincide with the well-deserved longlisting of The Hands for the 2016 Miles Franklin award.

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: The Hands, an Australian Pastoral
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN 9781743053430
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

 

Availability

Fishpond: The Hands: An Australian Pastoral
Or direct from Wakefield Press


Responses

  1. I know quite a few farming families, Lisa and you are spot on with your insights into the inheritance issue. It impacts on education and marriage and all sorts of orbiting lifestyle issues. Thanks for this review; I think I will enjoy ‘The Hands’ very much.

    • Hi Karen, thanks for dropping by:)
      I hadn’t thought about marriage as well, but I can see how it would….

  2. I had issues with the Snippets but if The Hands comes to my library as an audio book I’ll certainly give it a try. I like your analysis of the issues around farming and inheritance. Lots of my uncles and aunts were farmers but not so many of their children.

    • Ah, I’m glad I’ve tempted you. I think this is classic Aussie lit, and it deserves a wide readership.

  3. I’m curious about this. I liked the Snippet post and your review makes me want to read it. On the virtual TBR it goes.

    • Can you get it in France?

      • My Amazon Kindle account is on Amazon US. So, yes, I can get it in English.

        • Amazon drives me crazy when I want to get a book in French. It makes me use Amazon Australia which assumes I only want books in English. Which is insane because we are a multilingual country and people here want to read books in multiple languages, not just English.

          • Strange. There must rights and VAT issues

  4. I ordered this from the library without reading your review, based on your Sensational Snippets post. I found this to be a compelling and intricate read. I live on a farm albeit not a dry remote farm and I think the novel meant more to me because I do some of the things set out in the novel (although we muster on horses and can always come back in for meals). A great review Lisa and thanks for the heads up on this novel – I am definitely going to read more of Stephen Orr’s novels.

    • I’m so glad you liked it! He’s a gifted writer that can get it right for both city folks and country folks, eh?

  5. […] (ANZLitLovers) loved the novel […]

  6. […] novel published in 2004 is destined to be one of my top ten novels for 2016.  Like The Hands, (see my review) it features an irascible, rigid father in conflict with a son more open to change, but the central […]

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

  8. Yep, definitely going to read this. Sounds like something I’d really like – thanks, Lisa.

    • Hello, Sylvia, how are you?! (I miss your blog, where are you now?)
      I hope you love this book too…

      • In Burradoo now, Lisa, in NSW’s Southern Highlands. Any time you’re passing…

        • That would be (sort of) on the way to the Hunter Valley, wouldn’t it?

          • It would be. We’re about 4 hours away, in another perfectly pretty little wine-and-cheese sort of area. It’s very lovely. We have chickens.

            • We’ll be needing to restock supplies of HV Semillon before long…

              • I’ll send you my email address. We can plan.

  9. […] Clapping by Richard Flanagan (which I loved but haven’t reviewed on this blog, but settled on The Hands by Stephen Orr because I like this author’s interest in redefining masculinity.  The Hands […]

  10. […] other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering […]

  11. […] one behind for a couple of hours? How do you not feel trapped by family expectations? In her excellent review, Lisa explores the relationships between men in rural areas. It is a fascinating and decerning way […]

  12. […] need an excuse) to link to Stephen’s wonderful novel The Hands: An Australian Pastoral.  (See my review). Don’t take my word for it, it has international fans and was reviewed enthusiastically by […]


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