The Orchard (1995)

The Orchard (1995)

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Second-Hand (Hardcover)

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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.