How does a woman find the shape of her own life? How does she come into a maturity that is truly her own?
Taking the essay as 'a porous, conversational, sometimes moody creature' and combining it with fiction, The Orchard continues Drusilla Modjeska's inquiry into the histories of women overshadowed by the stories of men. Rich in character, it is a meditation on mid-life, when a woman 'reaches both ways' towards the generations above and below. The narrator, the 'I' of the essays, picks her way through a crisis with her eyesight and the dilemmas of her forties, looking back to her past and forward to the possibilities indicated by Ettie, who, at 80, lives in the mountains with a garden on the edge of a scarp. Can she and her friend Louise find their own place of engagement and retreat? Can they offer a steady hand to the young and troubled Clara?
Three central essays - on parenthood and adultery, on solitude and sight, on memories of school - are held together by the Central European folk-tale of the Handless Maiden, in which a girl has her hands cut off by her father in a pact with the devil. As a result, the girl leaves her family and sets out into the world alone. When a king sees her wandering in his palace orchard, he watches as she pulls a pear towards her with the bound stumps of her arms. He falls in love with her sad beauty, fashions a pair of silver hands for her and takes her as his wife. When, due to more meddling by the devil, she leaves the palace, she escapes into the wilderness with her child, alone again for many years, until, at last, her hands grow back. Only then is she reunited with the king and returned to the palace, which she can now truly occupy as queen.
" A hundred guests in glorious robes were invited to feast this second union. A hundred guests bearing jewelled gifts heard the story of the young queen's hands that grew back during those years in the forest. A hundred guests heard the story and went back into the world where they each told a hundred guests of their own.
As you will, now that I've told you."
The book will not address male and female readers equally. It quietly manages a reversal such that the male reader listens in to an absorbing and self-absorbed conversation that takes place largely without reference to him. But the effect is less exclusion than learning to listen...
The Orchard values the kind of wisdom and poise that might be gained through historical understanding, or love on certain terms, through friendship or solitude, perhaps even in gardening. It is determined and persistent as well, tough-minded in the face of those ruthless sentimental versions of love, art and history which have dismembered women's creative lives. It opens a space for these same qualities of wisdom, poise and persistence in its readers' lives and this incudes its male readers. I hope it finds them.
The Orchard is another of those books that confounds the categories. The pieces that constitute it are deeply fictionalised, if by that we understand that what they do is exhibit the play of the imagination; that they tend to be essayistic if we allow that category to embrace powerful enactments, adept dialogue and superbly phrased prose...
This is a profoundly satisfying book that carries much of the punch of fiction on the one hand and autobiography on the other, but it is also speculative and intellectually adventurous in a way that disrupts expectations.
Australian Book Review
It raises important questions about the relationship between writing and experience. Is there a line between fiction and history, memory and imagination, literature and interpretation, stories and life? If so, how firm is it? Can it be stepped over?
'The Handless Maiden' is a story that is at once both simple and enormously complex. Like Modjeska's book, it stays with you, gathering strength as it significance gradually becomes more clear.