Stephen Orr, The hands: An Australian pastoral (Review)
As promised, here is my review of a farm novel, Adelaide-based Stephen Orr’s The hands: An Australian pastoral. It is his sixth novel but the first that I’ve read. Where have I been? The hands is such a good read I wonder why I haven’t read him before.
Among the review excerpts for his previous novels provided at the beginning of my edition is one for his fourth, Dissonance. It says the book prompts us “to ponder the deep nature of familial relationships and their hold over one’s life”. This must be Orr’s milieu because I could write exactly the same about this book. It is set on a remote cattle property called Bundeena, in western South Australia. At the start of the novel, six people live there: 74-year-old Murray who holds the deed to the farm; his sister Fay and her not-quite-right son Chris; and Murray’s son Trevor, his wife Carelyn, and their 11-year-old son Harry. The seventh member of the family, 17-year-old Aiden, is at boarding school. In the first of the novel’s three chronologically titled (2004, 2005, 2006) parts, we shift between the third person perspectives of those at Bundeena, and that of Aiden at school.
Like most farm novels I’ve read – such as Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review), Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review) and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review) – The hands, depicts the hard life of the farmer, the struggle to survive, and the uncompromising emotions that often attend such lives. You have to be tough to survive is the implication. But, do you? Sometimes, perhaps, you can be too tough. Orr’s characters have to contend with much – not just ongoing drought and debt, but grief that is layered upon layer through the generations, from the World War 1 related suicide of Murray’s grandfather, through the farm accident which damages Chris, to another accident which rocks the family and sparks the tension that finally brings it all to a head. Secrets will out and truths, emotional and practical, must be faced.
This sounds pretty thickly laid on, doesn’t it? World War 1, suicide, farm accidents, drought, and more. How believable is it all? Fortunately, Orr’s control of his plot is sure, and the tone never shifts into melodrama. The story elements fit logically, with the necessary groundwork carefully laid. It pays to notice the details. Is there a hint, for example, in the first film we find movie-mad Chris watching, The Great Escape?
The hands is not a challenging novel to read, and it doesn’t break ground in terms of the form, but from the first page I was fully engaged – because it’s authentic. We reviewers can throw that term around rather loosely, but you’d better believe me when I use it for this novel. Orr’s ability to capture characters and the way they interact with each other is truly impressive. The uneasy relationship between Trevor and his unbending father, the love and loyalty between Aiden and Harry that lies behind the teasing and bickering, Trevor’s conversations with his sons. It’s pretty darn perfect.
Orr’s control of his story starts with the title. “It’s all in the hands” we read, and hands feature consistently throughout the novel – working on the farm, driving, sculpting. Sculpting? Yes, Trevor sculpts son Harry’s hands. Fittingly, the novel concludes as the sculpture is completed. And then there’s the subtitle. I love the use of the word “pastoral” and its multiple connotations. There’s the literal meaning relating to land used for grazing sheep and cattle. That describes this book. Then there’s the Christian church sense of providing spiritual guidance. Hmm, there’s a dearth of good guidance (spiritual, emotional, however you like to frame it) offered in this novel, particularly by patriarch Murray. In the end it’s Murray’s powerless, down-trodden sister Fay who comes good. And then there’s “pastoral” used to describe works of art which portray country life in a romantic or idealised way. But, this is not a romantic or idealised story, making the subtitle pointedly ironic.
This is a novel about a lot of things. Specifically, it’s about farms and farm families, about how farms and the responsibility for them are handed down through families. It’s about the expectation that succeeding generations will farm, and it’s about one generation letting go to allow the next to continue. The trouble is that at Bundeena, Murray will not let go. He holds the deed, and Trevor feels trapped. More than that, he feels unvalued and without autonomy. Aiden notices it too:
The word was with Murray, and Murray was the word … There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.
Talking with him, feels Trevor, is like “arguing with a rock”.
The specific farm themes, though, encompass bigger themes to do with familial love and responsibility, choices and autonomy, guilt and shame. It is these that lift The hands from a good, but exotic to most of us, farm story to something that applies to us all. In this context, though, it must be said that women play only a small role, and the role they play could be seen to be a little idealised, in that much of the warmth or perception comes from them. However, this is not overdone. They are not sentimentalised, and their relative absence is not a flaw: this is a book about men, about generations of farming men, their lives and their decisions.
Still, it’s to Fay that I’d like to give the last word:
Family, she realised, was the most difficult thing of all. It never reached a point of completion and what was there never seemed satisfactory. But one thing, she realised: there was always a pivot, one person at the centre holding it all together.
In The hands, this turns out to be Trevor. It is he who must make the tough decisions for himself and his sons. This novel is satisfying on so many levels – story, style and subject matter. I comment it to you.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved the novel too.
The hands: An Australian pastoral
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2015
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)