Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2017

Datsunland (2017), by Stephen Orr

The lead story in Datsunland, a new collection of short stories from Stephen Orr is a great conversation starter…

Titled ‘Dr Singh’s Despair’, it’s about a clash of cultures on an epic scale.  Dr Singh is an Indian doctor who has agreed to work in a remote location in the hope of bringing his family here to Australia for a better life.  He is an educated, cultured, rather formal man who is used to being treated with respect.  To say that the casual mores of Coober Pedy come as a shock is a bit of an understatement.

Waiting in the airport terminal for the car that was supposed to meet him…

He sat on a loose seat, took a freshly ironed handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead.  He remembered the brochures the Health Commission had sent him: Barossa Valley vineyards, fishing off white beaches on the Eyre Peninsula and marvelling at the Naracoote Caves.

Yes, some of this please, he’d written back.  He was tired of living in the most densely populated place on the planet.  A swarm of humans that just kept coming, filling his waiting room, his days, his nights, his dreams with broken bodies, malaria, typhoid and TB, floating through the small, hot room he worked in for sixteen hours a day.

Yes, some of this please.

But then came the next letter.  We have shortages in remote locations.  Very considerable financial incentives are involved.

Yes, some of that too.

So, sign here, Dr Singh, and we’ll pay your airfare, accommodation – the whole lot.

Almost.  (p.5)

Well, we Aussies can just imagine it, can’t we?  It’s Wake in Fright with indifferent racism instead of drunken violence.  It’s Singh’s ‘failure’ to ‘see the funny side of things’ that will generate discussion.  I think this would be a great story for secondary school students to unpack…

The stories in this collection are sombre: the characters are, as the blurb says, outsiders peering into worlds they don’t recognise, or understand. 

Completely different to ‘Dr Singh’s Despair’ and nightmarishly chilling is ‘The One-Eyed Merchant’, a salutary reminder that workplace safety practices used once to be non-existent. ‘A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia’ doesn’t have the most enticing title, but it’s a powerful story, again about outsiders and how we perceive them.  ‘Miss Mary’ is a tale that aches with loneliness and a wasted life.

Two stories pack a most uncomfortable punch.  Most of the stories are set in small outback towns  but ‘The Confirmation’ is a story of sectarian violence in Ireland.  The other one that really shocked me was ‘The Adult World Opera’, a gut-wrenching story of a child struggling to survive a situation that no child should have to endure.

I have previously reviewed the novella in this collection, Datsunland when it was published in the Griffith Review.

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Datsunland
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054758
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Datsunland


  1. I’m currently reading it, I’ll come back later.


    • Wonderful! I know you’re a fan of Stephen’s writing:)


  2. I’ll have to read it. Workplace safety is a very recent invention, for instance we only got handrails to walk along the top of our tankers – 4m off the ground, in the dark, in the rain – 10 years ago.


    • It really bothers me the way I see workers ignoring the rules. There’s always construction around our place because it’s full of 1950s BVs and weatherboards and everyone does extensions and double storey renovations – and if I had a dollar for every man I’ve seen on the roof with no rails and no harness, I could build a second storey to house my book collection…


  3. I do like the sound of the themes he explores. I’ve made notice of this one. Thanks Lisa.


    • Stephen Orr is one of our best, our finest authors. By any measure, he should have won heaps of awards for his writing. But he writes about outback towns and farm life and the pressures of people trapped in awkward situations and anything rural is not fashionable with hip young urbanites so he doesn’t get the exposure he deserves. He was longlisted for the Miles Franklin for The Hands, and was unlucky to lose out to AS Patric’s Black Rock White City which is also a superb book. #Musing I think I might have fought over that if I’d been on the jury and demanded that they share the prize…
      He would be a contender for The Melbourne Prize if he lived in Victoria, that’s for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Saving this title (along with a thousand others). It sounds so interesting. I wish there would be a moratorium on publishing new books so I could catch up. Lol


    • I read this week that there are more books published each year than any person could read in a lifetime. So don’t feel bad, just read the best of ’em and enjoy:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Will read your review when we read this book, which I hope to get to later this year. I’m so looking forward to it. I have though read the comments. The issue re workplace safety is one Mr Gums, an engineer, was really serious about. And now as a handyman at home, he wears whatever protection is relevant – ear, eye, mouth. He never fears looking silly or unmanly. I do worry about him on roofs though!


  6. The publisher kindly sent me an ebook of this without me even asking. I’ve read the first story and loved it. Will work through the rest slowly.


    • I didn’t know it was available as an eBook, I’ll chase up the link for overseas readers and add it above …


  7. […] can find other reviews on Lisa’s blog, one for the whole collection and one for the main story, […]


  8. […] (ANZLitLovers) reviewed the novella and the collection, and so did Carmel Bird in The Newtown Review of Books whose insightful analysis of the langauge […]


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