The Handless Maiden
by Loranne Brown
Published by Doubleday
417 pages, 1998
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Moving From Darkness
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Loranne Brown's first novel, The Handless Maiden is a bold debut. Peopled with compelling and recognizable characters and possessed of a story with a strong emotional hold.
The Handless Maiden is told by Mariah Standhoffer looking back at her childhood and painful transition into womanhood. It's not an expected transition. Mariah is sexually abused by her grandfather from the age of eight, a circumstance she feels powerless to confess to her parents and that impacts on every aspect of her life. A gifted pianist, at 17 she shoots her hand in a struggle with her abusive grandparent: an accident that leads to amputation and -- inevitably -- further transition.
A good deal of the story takes place while Mariah is a child and a young teenager. Brown's handling of these childish voices is masterful. She has the rare gift for remembrance and observation that marks the voice of the memorable writer.
Much of the story is shaped by elements of Mariah's life that are extraordinary. The early abuse. The amputation. The emotional complications that arise from both. What's startling is how much of the story isn't about extraordinary things at all. Brown reminds us, then, of the commonalties we share as humans. That the things that are in our lives are -- to some degree -- normal to us. We function, yes. But beyond that we grow and evolve and -- if we are to participate fully in our own lives -- we overcome. My normal and yours might look quite different, but the things that we share -- basic humanity, desires, needs -- those things remain unaltered by circumstance.
Mariah's story isn't normal. Yet, in many ways, it is entirely. She endures abuse, confusion about relationships and careers and various other questions and challenges that many of us face as we move through our lives.
She doesn't deal with her personal challenges in a heroic way. In fact, sometimes quite the opposite. But it is, once again, this humanity that we recognize in Brown's rendering of Mariah. The qualities that make her real and completely believable.
Stylistically, The Handless Maiden is in some ways a dark story. There is little of levity in the book. Little of light. Yet there is a hopefulness. One that has nothing to do with soundtracks and one that doesn't require a brick to the head to identify.
A period piece, the book begins in Thunder Bay, Ontario in the 1960s, and ends in the 1980s with a major stop of a decade in Bermuda. Here too Brown has been meticulous. While her use of extraneous detail isn't over-the-top, the little she renders has a recognizable feel: the images she's chosen go far to convey a sense of place and time.
The Handless Maiden is Loranne Brown's first novel and it's a triumphant debut: one that I predict will prove to be one of the most important in Canadian literature this year. | September 18, 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.
Read a profile of Loranne Brown