Shining Like the Sun by Stephen Orr

Reviewed by Rod McLary

An epigraph to this new novel by Stephen Orr is a quote from the esteemed Australian author Patrick White.  He says: The mystery of life is not salved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.  Epigraphs by definition point to the theme of the novel in which it sits – and this is a novel about failure and struggle, and in the end about commitment and contribution.

The narrative is set in Selwyn – a town of ‘three hundred people coming and going, dying, lost in the cracks’ [3]; and the narrator introduces Wilf – slowly approaching his eightieth birthday and always talking of retiring.  His wife Nance has died, his son Steve was killed in a car accident, his niece Orla has leukemia, and his great-nephew Connor is not doing much of anything.  Wilf’s life it would seem is one of ‘perpetual struggle’ but he keeps busy in doing all those small tasks which are necessary in a small community.  Wilf drives the school bus and contends with the mouthy adolescents who frequent the bus; he delivers fruit and vegetables, and the mail, and sometimes medication.  He also cares for his niece and tries to keep Connor – a seventeen-year-old – on the straight and narrow.

Wilf is a typical small-town bushie who had a brute of a father, and is not always in control of his own feelings.  But he does care for Orla and Connor.  Connor is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel as he struggles against being locked into Selwyn for the rest of his life with his mother dying before his eyes.  Wilf is keen to have Connor take over his ‘work’ but Connor has other plans.  In a nod to the reach of ‘pop’ culture even into Selwyn, Connor wants to write music and head up a punk rock band.

Along the way, other characters are introduced.  Wilf’s brother Colin, who fled to the United States when he had the chance, has come for a visit.  This allows the narrative to recount the brothers’ shared childhood and the harsh discipline they suffered at the hands of their father; and for Colin to remind Wilf of what he is missing by staying in Selwyn.   And Selwyn now has Scoops n’ Smiles which Wilf believes may be selling more than ice cream to the youth of the town.

Shining Like the Sun in its languid pace captures the dynamics of a small country town as it declines – the gradual drift of young people to the larger towns, the incursion of drugs, the sense that the town is no more than a tourist stop ‘but at least it has a pub’.  While Wilf is not always likeable, he does have a heart of gold and feels needed by many in the town.  The character of Connor brings a freshness and a glimpse into the future as he works out what he wants to do with his life.  Other small-town characters come and go but Wilf, Connor and Orla sit at centre stage.

This is a novel which moves slowly towards its conclusion – much like life in small towns the world over.  And at its heart is the importance of love for family and friends, and a commitment to the community.  As Connor says to himself at the conclusion of the novel – Wilf had taught him that people stayed with you, helped you, offered [silently, in strange ways] advice [312].

The author – in his earlier days – taught in country schools and this experience has no doubt contributed to his ability to capture the essence of country and the dynamics of small country towns.  Shining Like the Sun is a pleasure to read.

Shining Like the Sun


by Stephen Orr

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 192304 227 8

$32.95; 312pp



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