The Hands by Stephen Orr

I can’t believe that it has taken me so long to read a novel by Stephen Orr.  I’ve been aware of him for some time, and I’ve been intending to read ‘Time’s Long Ruin’ for ages.  I’m hiding behind my frequent reader’s refrain: ‘Too many books, too little time’.

Now I’ve read ‘The Hands’, I’ll be seeking out the rest of Stephen Orr’s novels.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

‘Trevor Wilkie knelt in front of the fence.’

Trevor Wilkie and his family live on a remote cattle farm called Bundeena, in the west of South Australia.  There are seven members of this extended family: Trevor, his wife Carelyn and their sons Harry and Aiden.  Harry, aged 11, is still at home while Aiden, aged 17, is attending boarding school.  The other family members are Trevor’s 74-year-old father, Murray, his sister Fay and her son Chris.  Fay moved in with Chris after her marriage failed and while Chris is an adult age-wise, mentally he is not.

Murray holds the deed to the farm, and he expects his son and grandsons to continue farming.  Never mind that the drought persists, that the cattle are in poor condition, and the farm is in debt.  Murray’s ties to the past are far more important than any consideration of a different future.

This novel unfolds in three chronologically titled parts: 2004, 2005 and 2006.  Much of the story is told through three person perspectives at Bundeena, part is Aiden’s view from boarding school.

While Murray casts a huge brooding shadow over Bundeena, it is Trevor who is central to the operation of the farm.  It is Trevor’s hands that matter:

‘He didn’t look like he could jump a bull, but she knew he could. It was all in the hands, he’d often explain. The will. The bloody mindedness. ‘

In addition to his farming work and his driving, Trevor is also sculpting Harry’s hands.  His progress with the sculpture provides a contemporary frame for the novel.  It’s a measurable, tangible achievement.

Life on this farm is never easy.  A family trapped together, lives shaped by accidents and secrets.  Can there be any escape?

This is the first of Stephen Orr’s novels I have read, and I’ve now added the others to my reading list.  This novel is lingering on in my mind, reminding me to think about the assumptions we make during life, and of the consequences of choice.  The characters in this novel are perfectly realised, flawed humans.  There are no heroes here, just people doing the best they can, gradually becoming aware that there just might be other life options available.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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