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Datsunland by Stephen Orr

August 13, 2017 13 comments

Datsunland by Stephen Orr (2017) Not available in French.

I loved The Hands by Stephen Orr so much that when Wakefield Press requested reviewers for Orr’s new collection of short stories, I asked for an advanced copy of Datsunland. And to be honest, it’s hard to write about it. Usually, when I write a billet about a collection of short-stories, I try to find common points between stories but here, I have a hard time finding them, so I’m going to write a billet that sounds like a six-degree-of-separation post, each story leading me to the other. It’ll make you see the variety of the stories.

The stories are set in different countries at different times from the beginning of the 20th century to nowadays. Several involve religious characters and they’re all on a scale going from weird to unbalanced. The Keeping of Miss Mary is about Brother Philipp, a teacher at Lindisfarne College who takes care of Miss Mary in his home. So far so good. Except that Miss Mary has been on a wheelchair since a car accident when she was twelve and nobody knows that she lives with Brother Philipp. He sees her as a challenge since she stopped believing in God after her accident but he’s also attracted to her and he enjoys the companionship, even if it seems one sided. It’s the sad story of a loving man whose religion condemned him to celibacy and who would have loved to have his own family. He found another path to have it and comply with his faith.

The Syphilis Museum is about Bill a fervent Catholic who loves his town, his religion. He first started to save his dying town, Reeves. When a shop closed, Bill bought the premises and founded a museum. This is how the Museum of Pestilence, the Museum of Famine, the Museum of War and the Museum of Syphilis. Getting older and lacking time, he decided to concentrate on the Syphilis Museum and how awful the illness is and how abstinence is the best prevention method. Then Mrs Bly arrives, challenges his speech, pushes him until we discover why it’s such a sensitive topic for her.

Akdak Ghost is about Preacher Fletcher who wants to shoot a video to increase the number of his parishioners. He wants people to find Jesus but the more the filming goes on, the more the reader see that Preacher Fletcher is not as sane as a pastor should be.

And then there’s religion as a political tool, in The Confirmation. It’s a story set in Northern Ireland in 1976. A man is coming home from work to son’s Confirmation ceremony when the bus he’s on is ambushed by IRA combatants.

At least two stories portray human cruelty to other and these stayed with me. The Adult World Opera features six-years old Jay, a very lonely child who’s abused by his mother’s boyfriend. It’s always hard for me to read about child abuse of any kind and it was particularly difficult. A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia is a different kind of cruelty. Mark and Susan are on a field trip in Shearwater to visit a dwarf town. A literal dwarf town where little persons run an open-air museum. Susan is terribly ill-a-ease while Mark enjoys himself under the false pretense of compassion. Susan discovers a side of her husband that she never suspected:

But now, now she suspected she’d misread him completely. Compassion, or a forensic fascination? A desire to pin every man onto a foam backing board, watch him wriggle, die, and dry out, write a label that said, ‘Can man’, ‘Aborigine’, ‘Dwarf’. To close the box and forget, knowing he’d made some attempt to understand, but really just to observe, to know, to control.

This is not the only one showing how spouses can be estranged. In Guarding the Pageant, Sam left his safe job to chase his dream and be a writer. His wife never expected this and their marriage went south. The story tells us what happened to his dream. How much do you know your spouse? What should you sacrifice, your dreams or your current life? In The Barmerva Drive-in, Trevor chose to go after his dream and restore an old drive-in.

Three stories have themes that reminded me of The Hands. The Shot-put mentions the episode of the cowards’ lists that the Australian government published after WWI. They were lists of deserters and what a shame it was to have your son on the list. The Shack is the story of an old man, dying from lung disease and who wonders what will happen to his mentally handicapped son after he’s gone. The Photographer’s Son is set in a rural area and Adrian is told some of the family’s secrets.

Life in the outback is the main topic of Dr Singh’s Despair, the story of an Indian doctor who traveled from India to take a medical position in the Australian outback. Dr Sevanand Singh is not prepared for what’s ahead of him. Nobody’s at the airport to welcome him, his accommodation is not exactly ready. Mark, a local guy tries to make him understand the local way-of -life.

And with these few words Mark Ash knew that Sevanand was not the one. He could already guess how long he’d last – four, five, maybe six months. ‘Listen, Dr Singh, Sevanand,’ he said, ‘up here you gotta take things as they come. It’s bush time. You know? Outback time. Like the black fellas. Doesn’t bother them if it takes six months to change a tyre. A year, ten years, so what? Get what I mean?’ Sevanand tried to smile. ‘And people enjoy their sex?’ Ash slapped his knee and laughed. ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s how you wanna be.’ ‘Flexible?’ ‘That’s one way, eh?’ And he broke up laughing. ‘Beer?’ ‘Plenty of beer.’ ‘And humour?’ Ash stopped. ‘That, my friend, is the most important thing of all.’ ‘So, I wait for my room? In the meantime?’ And smiled. ‘A few nights’ kip? I’ve got the perfect place.’

Dr Singh is used to more respect and this is not what he signed up for. Will he be able to adapt?

Datsunland is the longest and probably the best story of the collection. Charlie Price is 14, a student at Lindisfarne College when William Dutton is hired as a music teacher. Charlie has lost his mom to cancer, William never made it as a rock star. Somewhere, they’ll find common ground thanks to rock and blues and become friends, beyond the age difference. William is an adult Charlie feels comfortable with, probably because he’s not settled. He’s still chasing his adolescent dream of being in a band and making a living with music. He doesn’t have a wife and children. William recognizes Charlie’s talent but also his pain. But in a traditional small town, teacher and student can’t be friends. Like in The Hands, Stephen Orr has a knack for being in a young boy’s head and Charlie sounds real. And it raises a valid question: are we so focused on risks of child molestation that we can’t imagine that a child might find a mentor in a teacher and that sometimes, it’s important to have another adult figure in your life than the ones in your family?

I enjoyed Orr’s collection of short stories very much. Some stories were poignant and several were dark, much darker than I expected. Of course, for me, there’s also the exoticism of Australia. Outdoor pageants for Christmas because it’s summer time. Odd words like kranksies and ute. The wilderness of the outback. Some remnant of British culture with Lindisfarne College.

You can find other reviews on Lisa’s blog, one for the whole collection and one for the main story, Datsunland.

Many thanks to Wakefield Press for sending me an ARC of Datsunland. Sorry it took me so long to write this billet.

PS: Sorry French readers, this is not available in French.

The Hands: an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr

April 8, 2016 36 comments

The Hands: an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr. (2015) Not available in French (yet)

My billet about Stephen Orr’s excellent novel, The Hands is long overdue. I should start with a summary of the plot but Stephen Orr sums it up better than me:

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.

Orr_HandsA perfect quote. We’re in Bundeena, Australia, with the Wilkies, an extended family who lives on a farm. Murray and his sister Fay. The next generation, Trevor and his wife Carelyn and Chris, Fay’s disabled son. And the next, Aiden and Harry, Trevor and Carelyn’s children. As you can guess from the quote, they raise cattle in a very isolated farm.

It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living off the farm. The region has been experiencing several years of severe drought. No water means no grass, which means no water and no food for the cattle, which means no fat cattle to sell and less money. Add to it the decrease of the price on the meat commodity market and you see that the Wilkies’ situation is grim.

But it’s a family business, the place where the family settled after emigrating from another country. They’d rather bleed on this land than go somewhere else. Trevor is not a fool. He’s well-aware of their predicament and torn about what to do:

Trevor Wilkie was at a dead-end. He could feel every gram, every tonne of the farm collapsing on top of him. Every steer, every cow, every calf. Every person: Murray, wheezing, distantly; Fay, clutching her perch; Aiden, who was still a long way from finding his path. And Harry, unsure what to think about anything. It was always going to come to this, he thought.

The Hands is also a remarkable novel about the difficulties to be a farmer. The Wilkies’ problems are set in Australia but in France too, it’s complicated to live from the land. It’s hard work and the market prices are so low that the farmers barely scrape by. In our Western world, we give more money to the people who take care of our money than to the ones who produce our food. What does it say about us and our values?

The Hands also gives an idea of life on a farm in the Australian outback. Orr describes perfectly the landscape:

Trevor studied the long, grey strip in front of them. He followed it half-way to the horizon before it was consumed by haze. By then it was blood red, pulsing and shifting across the desert. He could tell it was alive, held in place by nothing more than a million distance markers. There was saltbush and bluebush and dead shrubs that looked the same as the living ones; a rest-stop with a single bin, but nothing else, as if this too was some forgotten skeleton.

The farm is so isolated that it’s 600 kilometres away from the closest city. For a French, 600 kilometres is quite a distance. I live in Lyon. Within 600 kilometres, I’m still in France if I go West but North or East, I can be in Switzerland, in Italy, in Belgium or in Germany. It’s very difficult to imagine 600 kilometres of nothingness or to think that you can own a farm where you can be three hours from home and still be on your property. The Hands gives a vivid picture of all this and of the life in autarky it implies. I knew about the School of the Air.  And yes, it’s a famous Australian icon. Harry can’t believe his school is as famous as the Sydney Opera but it is. I wasn’t surprised about it but the novel shows how hard it is on the children. They have a corner in the house that is the “school corner”. They’re supposed to be in school when they’re in this corner but it is still a challenge to concentrate and it’s harder to make a link between what they learn and their daily life. And then, there’s health. In the following quote, Fay is ill and Trevor is on the phone with a nurse or a doctor:

Trevor found a pad and pen and asked, ‘What number’s that?’ ‘Sixty-two.’ ‘Sixty-two, three times a day, for seven days?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, thanks.’ He hung up. Carelyn already had the medical kit out. She was sorting the ointments, dressings and plastic vials full of dozens of types of pills; checking the bold numerals designed to make sure no one gave the wrong medication. She found the pills: 62. ‘Right.’

They have a kit of medicine and the first step is self-medication with the help of an online physician. And then, in case of emergency, they have The Flying Doctors: ‘A heart attack,’ someone said. ‘The Flying Doctor’s gonna land on the road.’

And there’s the deadly climate. The heat is unbearable and murderous. People can get lost in the desert and die without crossing anyone’s path and get help.

But The Hands is more than a statement about life on a remote farm in a harsh climate. It is also a wonderful literary novel about a complicated and flawed family. Murray acts like a patriarch but he doesn’t have the personality that should go along with such a role. He carries the traditions and the painful past of the family around his neck like a dead albatross. He’s pigheaded and in his mind, there was no other career choice possible for Trevor than taking over the farm. And in Murray’s head, his grand-sons will continue the story. The problem is that Murray is toxic and dictatorial. He plays on guilt, he’s selfish and just plain mean. Aiden, who’s seventeen at that point, can see his flaws:

Aiden studied his grandfather’s arms, his neck, his grey sideburns, and thought, Yes, it’s all someone else’s fault, isn’t it? The word was with Murray and Murray was the word. Not for the first time, he could feel himself starting to hate his grandfather. 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.

Sometimes, I wanted to strangle Murray for the path of destruction left by his actions and his biting words. He crushes Trevor’s self-confidence. He’s not helpful on the farm. He’s mean with his disabled nephew. He’s set in his ways and would rather crush his family than change his mind. The life in autarky exacerbates the relationships between the family members. Nobody has a place to breathe out and interact with other people. They are on each other’s backs all the time. The children grow up with no friends. The adults can’t go out and socialise. The elders don’t have contacts with people from their generation. It’s stifling. They can only find sometime alone in the nature surrounding the farm.

I’ve always wondered how it felt to grow up and feel obliged to take over the family business, to work with your parents, be it on a farm or in business. Do you manage to come out of your skin and have a work relationship and leave the parent-child 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 of analysing The Hands.

For French readers, sorry but The Hands is not available in French. Yet. But now it is listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I hope Stephen Orr will win this prize because then there’s a better chance that this book gets translated.

And last but not least, I send a big thank you to Lisa for recommending The Hands to me when I asked about books set in Perth. Whispering Gums also reviewed it here, with a bonus post here.

31/10/2016: Here’s another review by Kim at Reading Matters

PS: Somewhere in the book it’s written: ‘In France they’re drinking at twelve,’ she said. ‘In France, children do what their parents tell them.’ Just to be sure that it’s clear for everyone, I want to set things straight: it’s a character speaking and it’s not true. Twelve-year-olds don’t drink in France.

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