Datsunland by Stephen Orr

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.

  1. August 13, 2017 at 11:11 am

    An author I am not familiar with, but it does sound like my brand of darkness…


  2. August 13, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    I read Orr’s One Boy Missing and liked it. This sounds very different.


    • August 13, 2017 at 11:16 pm

      I’ll read other books by him. I’ll check this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. August 14, 2017 at 5:38 am

    I’m glad you liked this. Yes, I agree that Datsunland was the best of them, but then, that’s because I always enjoy a story of greater length than a short story.
    But Dr Singh’s Despair was brilliant, eh?


    • August 14, 2017 at 10:11 pm

      Yes, it was brilliant. This poor Indian doctor who hoped for a better life in Australia and ends up in a place where life is worse than where he comes from. (at least, in his opinion)

      I thought that The Keeping of Miss Mary was a bit creepy but very touching at the same time.

      The hardest was The Adult World Opera. It was difficult to read it until the end but it stayed with me.

      The one in the dwarf village was chilling as well. Interesting question raised there: does it make it acceptable to participate to the charade by visiting (they make a living) or is it morally wrong to participate? For me, the answer is clearly not to participate and encourage people to debase themselves. But does this respect their free will?

      These stories raised a lot of ethical questions, I think and were full of social awareness.

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 15, 2017 at 7:16 am

        That last issue is one that keeps cropping up, a very difficult issue that has different answers now, IMO, when people should be more aware and there is legislation to protect the employment rights of people with disability, to in the past, when sometimes there was little choice.


        • August 15, 2017 at 5:39 pm

          I agree with you but their unemployment rate remains high. Necessity might prevail. The question is always: how much of it is really a choice?

          Apart from Datsunland, which one did you prefer?


  4. August 16, 2017 at 1:23 am

    Dr Singh is the one I remember best, but The One Eyed Merchant is another.


  5. August 21, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    I remember your review of The Hands – the author’s name definitely rings a bell. It’s good to hear that you enjoyed these stories as well as his novel. Sometimes a writer can succeed with one form but not the other. Richard Yates springs to mind as someone who could straddle both, but it’s not an easy thing to do. There’s often nowhere to hide with a short story as every word needs to count.

    A very thoughtful review, as ever. I like the sound of the variety across the collection as a whole.


    • August 23, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      I think The Hands is better than the short-stories but both are really powerful. I like his style as well, his description of the landscape, his sense of humour sometimes and the depth of the characters. I agree with you, it’s not easy to be good in the two genres because they require different skills. Both are demanding but in different ways.


  6. September 25, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Lovely write up Emma. I love how you’ve explored so many of the stories. I found Akdal ghost shocking, as well as The Adult World Opera, and others. Dr Singh was a great opening story. I think there is an element of social realism to these stories too – so many social issues as you say underlie the stories, including discrimination (race, and quite a few on physical or mental handicap), child abuse, the negative impact of religion on people, to name a few.

    Did you see that Wakefield are bringing out his next book, probably before the end of the year? Woo hoo.


    • September 25, 2017 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks for the link to your review.
      I agree with your comment and I think your right when you wrote in your review that compassion is a common feeling among the stories. Sometimes it’s to point out the lack of compassion, a fake compassion, a weird compassion but he definitely explores this idea.

      I also thought that these stories had a goal and that this goal (conscious or not) was to show the life of people whose circumstances in life put them in a position of weakness. A child who had to work on a ship because he needed to support himself, dwarfs like in this village, disabled people (Miss Mary), foreigners like Dr Singh, this little boy who’s abused…

      I have to confess that his vision of religion is close to mine. (And we’re talking about religion here, not faith) So I was rather happy that he used his writing skills to show all the evil that can be done by zealots.

      I didn’t know he had a new book released later this year! Great news!


      • September 26, 2017 at 12:12 am

        Thanks Emma. I agree re his covering various aspects of compassion, and you make a good point about weakness. In fact I was thinking after writing my post that he has several handicapped characters which puts people in weak positions … The dwarves, Mary, the son of the aging father, and I’m sure there’s at least one other. These feed into the compassion issue too don’t they.


  1. September 25, 2017 at 7:44 am

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