Welcome to Orphancorp, Marlee Jane Ward (2015)
Note: We don’t give star-ratings. We review in order to encourage the development of AusQueerYA, by deconstructing the good and the bad bits, to learn and grow as writers.
‘A sharp-edged semi-futuristic riff about a rebellious teenager’s last week at an industrial orphanage.’
Perfect example of less is more. Even the blurb reflects this. There are some complex and at times, very heavy themes in this novella. Love, intimacy, youth, freedom, friendship and identity issues are woven throughout the plot. The plot is fairly simple, but that serves well to reflect the concept of time passing and stuff happening beyond your control, but not being able to grab hold of anything solid. Both Mirii and the reader grapple with the feeling that they are being led somewhere and forced to feel things, but where that path is going isn’t necessarily good. The ending here nods to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which explores very similar topics, leaving the reader wondering if they should be relieved or horrified or both. I spent the majority of this novella feeling extremely anxious, but I was also cheering Mirii on, which was quite the ride for me (in a good way, but I definitely recommend not drinking too much coffee before you start this book).
Running counter to the overarching bleakness is the fire and grit of the characters. Ward has done a good job, considering the constrictions of the novella’s word count and the limited POV of Mirii, in creating characters that you actually connect to. There’s Freya with her refusal to give in to the system, even though it’s literally destroying her. There’s Vu, who has found some comfort in caring for the babies of Orphancorp. There’s Blondie, seemingly happy-go-lucky even in the face of such horrors, doing his best to find joy in the little things. Cam, like an eager younger brother, still clinging to the hope that he’ll be something someday. There was enough here that I cared when Vu was transferred, but I still want to know more about them all.
There are persons who identify as gender-neutral and a lot of the characters are Queer, with a lot of those also being sexually fluid, as seen in the ‘cuddle party’ scene. There is never a big deal made about sex, except through the character of Freya, who I took to represent that inner turmoil we all experience between being true to ourselves, even if it means we are punished (inclusive of internal punishment) and giving in to a perceived comfort, even if it means we feel we are giving up a piece of ourselves.
To Be Improved:
There is not much to comment on here, except to say I want more. It’s tricky, because I have read the next instalment, Psynode, so some of questions from Welcome to Orphancorp were answered there, but not all. And I know there is a third instalment coming, so maybe that will wrap things up? Ward has the tendency to dangle shiny things in front of the reader only to rip them away. For example, I really want to know more about Freya and Auntie Bev and I want to know what their world is like and why they ended up in these Orphancorps. This is a good thing though, because it keeps you turning the pages.
The writing style is fierce and the sense of voice is phenomenal, but this is hard to digest at times. Mirii is unreliable, because her view is so skewed, which makes our view skewed. I wouldn’t necessarily want to change this, because it makes a massive impact on the reader in an emotional sense, but at the same time you can see Mirii doing something dumb and screaming at her to not do the dumb thing, but of course she does it and that really takes its toll. I 100% understand that’s a problem for me as a reader though. Maybe I should take more snack breaks or something? But I literally could not stop. To quote from the book itself, ‘Sometimes here the hurt and the good feelings get all mixed up. Sometimes they become the same thing.’
There are no real issues with this novel. There were a few things in the plot that sort of only half made sense, but I didn’t notice them until a second read. Mostly I wasn’t sure how these kids could get tattoo gear and make keys and smoke weed, but nobody was threatening each other with stolen screwdrivers? Except Freya? I get everyone was all ‘brus before Uncles’ but like, surely there was some more pent up rage than could be worked off at recess? Super nice if they all do get along, but I didn’t totally buy it.
Ward deserves all the praise she has received for this book, because it is bold and different to the standard Australian YA. It’s set just far enough into the future to be both intriguing and believable, but plugs itself into the humanism of people that is relatable no matter who you are or what position you are in. We all crave acceptance of who we are, as individuals and as part of a community and Ward runs with this far beyond anything I’ve read in the Australian YA genre.