Book Review: Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (2019)

October 22nd, 2019 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

An important story, but not without its failings.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for homophobic violence, including gay conversion therapy and sexual harassment/assault, and suicide.)

Like Orpheus, I’m going to hell and I’m looking to save the girl I love. Because Orpheus? She’s a girl. A girl who likes girls.

For as long as Raya can remember, it’s just been her and her grandmother. Gram’s husband died in a car accident when she was twenty-seven, leaving her to raise their two-year-old daughter Calli on her own. Calli got pregnant her senior year of high school and ran off to become an actress three years later; Raya hasn’t heard from her since. Raya’s only glimpse of her mom is on tv, where she plays the goddess Aphrodite on daytime soaps. She and Gram are alone together, lonely planets hurtling down parallel orbits of abandonment, each defined by the same absence, the same loss.

Making matters worse is the fact that Raya has to hide her true self: from Grammy, from her friends and classmates, from church, from the small town she begrudgingly calls home. It’s 2004 in Pieria, Texas, and Raya is gay: a girl who likes girls. And this is a time and place where teenagers like her often disappear without a trace.

When Raya and her best (and only) friend Sarah are outed by a (violently homophobic and misogynist) classmate, they’re sent to a gay conversion camp called Friendly Saviors, where things quickly go from bad to worse. At best, the prisoners undergo grueling physical labor, humiliating talk “therapy,” and milder forms of physical torture; at worse, they are drugged and electrocuted into compliance.

Orpheus Girl is not for the faint of heart, and comes with some strong trigger warnings. This is a tragic queer story tempered by a tentatively hopeful ending. Our heroes manage to persevere, though they do not emerge from hell unscathed.

As much as I want to see more shiny happy stories starring queer characters, I suppose you could argue that there’s still a need for the sad and horrifying narratives, to shine a light on the many atrocities happening in there here and now. (And yes, while there has been a state-by-state legislative push again gay conversion therapy, as of this writing gay conversion therapy on minors has been banned in just 18 states, as well as DC and Puerto Rico. According to studies by the UCLA Williams Institute, more than 700,000 LGBTQ people have been subjected to gay conversion therapy, with an estimated 80,000 kids at risk in the future.)

I’m always on the lookout for good books, of any genre, with LGBTQ protagonists, and Orpheus Girl caught my eye both because of the author’s young age, as well as her background in poetry. While the narrative is compelling, Orpheus Girl feels like a debut novel, and not in a good way. There were so many little details that distracted from my enjoyment of the book. To name just one example: Raya is able to lift Hyde’s truck keys on the first try, even though she has zero background in pickpocketing or general thievery. Nor does she possess nerves of steel: when she later manages to steal said truck, she immediately flips it 180 degrees, while still within earshot of the camp. So, yeah, I’m not buying it.

Additionally, the characters lack depth and nuance: aside from their fashion sense, Raya are Sarah aren’t really distinguishable from one another, and Raya’s primary personality trait seems to be “orphan.”

But the thing that bugged me the most is how compressed the timeline is: just three days after she’s sent to prison (I can’t in good conscience call it a camp, let’s be real), Raya’s worried that Grammy has already married her new suitor and moved on. When I say “new,” I mean as in they literally just started dating weeks before Raya was outed. And then we find out, a month later at most, that she totally did! I don’t know about you, but it takes me three months to hang a new poster. WHO MOVES THAT FAST.

Orpheus Girl is an important story, for sure, but if you’re looking for a book that confronts the horrors of gay conversion therapy, you can probably do better. Just off the top of my head, I’d recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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