The Handless Maiden


417 pages
ISBN 0-385-25702-3
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the trade, scholarly, and reference editor of the
Canadian Book Review Annual.


In 1963, eight-year-old Mariah Standhoffer and her family move into her
grandfather’s home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Over the next decade, her
life is dominated by two things: her musical apprenticeship and her
sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather. (Two long-term effects of
the abuse are anorexia and episodes of self-cutting.) A shooting
accident when Mariah is 17 leads to the amputation of her right hand and
a shift in careers from concert pianist to composer.

Competing for Mariah’s affections are Sully Riordan and Doug Hassock
(the latter lacks a right arm but has a right hand “jutting straight
from the shoulder”). Whereas Sully is a candidate for sainthood, Doug
is Mariah’s “link to the darkness.” She marries Sully but gives
birth to Doug’s son. For the Riordan family, there is a long and
relatively blissful interlude in Bermuda before tragedy strikes in the
form of another accidental shooting.

Until the first shooting incident and its immediate aftermath, The
Handless Maiden is a competent if somewhat conventional tale of growing
up in the shadow of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the balance of the
novel is notable for its lack of narrative drive and dramatic tension.
Brown’s characters, all of whom speak in the same mannered fashion,
are wholly transparent in their emotions, agendas, and motivations.
Mariah engages not only in relentless self-analysis but also in endless
small talk with friends and family. All this verbiage is interspersed
with moments of pure melodrama. For example, out of the blue, Doug tells
Mariah he’s gay. This admission—which appears to be based on little
more than the author’s desire to snap the narrative momentarily out of
its coma—does not prevent Mariah and Doug from enjoying carnal
relations the night before she and Sully become engaged.

Most objectionable of all is the novel’s cavalier treatment of
anorexia. Mariah supposedly suffers from it, but you wouldn’t know it
from the way she sails through pregnancy and childbirth. She and those
around her (including her doctors) seem to regard this debilitating and
life-threatening condition—insofar as they regard it at all—as
nothing more than a charming idiosyncrasy.


Brown, Loranne., “The Handless Maiden,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 17, 2024,