Orpheus Girl

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 15 Oct 2019

Member Reviews

*Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Content warnings for homophobia, transphobia, self-harm, and violence against LGBTQ+ characters.

Orpheus Girl, a story about two girls falling in love and then being forced to undergo gay conversion therapy, powerfully inverts the Orpheus myth by rethinking what it means when we say we want to ‘save’ someone.
The main character is Raya, a myth-obsessed sixteen-year-old girl, who lives with her grandmother in a small conservative Texas town. When Raya was born, she had vertebrae sticking out of her back, which looked like wings. The doctors set the vertebrae back, metaphorically clipping Raya’s wings when she was born. This story is about the people who tell you your differences are defects rather than gifts. Through beautiful allegory, Rebele-Henry exposes the problem of how we are supposed to forge are identities when we are told to fear the way we born.

Rebel-Henry uses myth in a way Raya is conscious of; the mythic roles she assigns herself can both entrap and empower her in the novel. Raya wants to be a saviour figure, to be a tragic hero, as she declares, “I’m going to descend into the depths of the underworld just like Orpheus” to save her love, Sarah, but as we all know, and Raya knows, the Orpheus myth ends in tragedy. Many times whilst reading Orpheus Girl I wanted to reach through the pages and hold Raya and Sarah but at no point could I tell them everything would be okay. However, being aware of the tragic myth and the real-world atrocities of conversion therapy, even while going through the hardest parts of it, the reader is never consumed by despair; the real heroism in the novel is how hope, and love, always wins.
Other people in the novel have warped ideas about salvation: the conversion camp is called the ‘Friendly Saviours’ but what they actually do there is make queer people disappear. Rebel-Henry portrays the danger of those who try to fundamentally deny who you are; this is frightening. Only by finding a way to invert the Orpheus myth can Raya find an escape from darkness and ignorance. 

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but compare it to Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, one of my favourite books. However, though there is similarity in terms of the tones of the books and the issues they explore, Orpheus Girl is something unique. Poetry and allegory ooze through the text in ways which are refreshing and surprising, offering something more than you usually find in YA contemporaries. Rebele-Henry writes haunting prose, comparable to the lyricism found in David Levithan’s best works.

While homophobia is clearly apparent in the attitudes and actions of the ‘Friendly Saviours’ and those who reject Raya at home, I also appreciated the attention given to more subtle forms of homophobia. Raya comments on the “nice homophobes.. who say things about how they don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t have to see them or interact with them”. This type of homophobic thinking is rampant.  Queer people are still forced into the shadows in workplaces and schools, where parents protest that their children acknowledging the existence of queer people is too far. It is still worth reminding as well that although all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies have concluded that conversion therapy is dangerous and condemned it, conversion therapy is still legal in the UK and in most states of America.

       “Like nymphs who were turned into trees or wild animals, we will be hunted by the people we once knew. We will never be safe, never escape the feeling, at least not until adulthood or college if we can afford it. And even after we’ve moved on, we will still look over our shoulders. We will wake up in the middle of the night with the icy fingers of panic creeping down our spines, the half-suppressed memories of the years we’ve tried to forget trickling back until we eventually drown in them. We will be weighed down by all the years we’ve spent being hated for something we can’t control and don’t want to control”.

The mythical dimensions in the novel remind the reader that this is not an individual story of suffering, but a story of many queer teens who suffered and continue to suffer under the hands of those who try to disguise their homophobia as salvation, and their ignorance as toleration.  

Overall, Rebele-Henry offers us a beautiful yet brutal story of first love, trauma and resilience. This was an exceptional debut novel. 

Orpheus Girl is out on the 8th October 2019.
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This story hurts to read. The writing is sparse, which makes for character development to be a tricky thing, but it really does feel like a myth. Except, thankfully, Rebele-Henry has chosen to give our Orpheus and Eurydice an ending that starts off happily.
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I found the sparse writing style of this book to be well executed, but it didn't resonate to me like a teenager's voice. I wonder if young readers will have a hard time engaging with it. To me, the tone of the book feels very heavy and sad, and the main character's overwhelming preoccupation with her absent mother felt a little overstated. Lastly, the main character's knowledge of queer issues, but lack of obvious engagement with technology, felt confusing for me. I'm not from a rural area, so perhaps this is my own lack of understanding showing. For these reasons, I found the book difficult to relate to personally. I would still advocate for the book to be sold, because there aren't enough rural queer stories being written, and it's an important story to tell, but I would not personally recommend it.
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This book is an important one and in some ways one revealing of the author's poetic past (the electroshock scenes were simultaneously perhaps the most engrossing in terms of writing and so distressing to read that I nearly stopped), but it didn't feel very complete. There wasn't much in the way of world-building or character introduction/growth/development. The movement from arrival at the facility through the escape attempt and the escalated "treatment," was so accelerated it didn't feel as if there was enough time for it to feel realistic or for things to settle. I also would have avoided outright referencing the source text (in the case, Orpheus) repeatedly in the text.
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very quick and thrilling read! It's ties to Greek mythology are quite shallow (really just references in the names of characters) but overall I really did enjoy the book. It would be a great read for young people who aren't normally interested in long drawn out novels. The characters are compelling and at the end I found myself wishing we could follow the lives of Raya and Sarah more. Would definitely recommend this book to people who came into my store.
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It's kind of hard to put my thoughts on this into words. Because I'm not sure how I feel. On one hand, this book is full of strength and rebellion and hope, but on the other it's dark and devastating and painful to read. What I really need to say is: please don't read this book if you're in a bad place.


So when it says "conservative Texas town" it means hardcore catholic christian where nobody tolerates queer people. As soon as somebody notices you being not cis and straight, you disappear. You're a disappointment, become a sinner. That's what Raya has been afraid of for a very long time and the reason why she never wanted to come out. But everything blows up in her face and she gets send to this christian camp that is supposed to make her heterosexual. But this camp is hard. Really hard. It's destroying people's lives. Teens that go there often change and not for the better. The methods they use at this camp are harsh and painful and manipulating. What seems like a weird Jesus camp at first soon turns about to be full of horrors.


Raya is rebellious at first, fighting the camp everywhere she can. But the further her "treatment" goes, the weaker she gets, both mentally and physically. And so is everyone else. Some can take it, some not so well. Some hide behind sarcasm, some just break completely. Because what they do in this camp is actual torture in so many ways. The words spoken to young queers, the things done to their bodies. None of them will leave there the same, unharmed, unscathed. It hurt me to read all this. It hurt me really deep down and I had to put the book away several times to process what I've just been reading.


But here's the thing. The book was not bad. And it definitely gives you something to think about. Because it's so real. The writing style is lyrical in some parts, then plain in others, bringing the harsh truth to life. It made Raya's voice of telling this story so real, so raw, so painful. The reader gets stuck in her head, questioning life with her, trying to unknot the real from the unreal, the wrong from right. The whole story was dark, going ever darker, but where there's darkness, there is light. Hope and fierceness were woven into this dark madness like a glowing ribbon.


So yeah, this book hurt me and left me with a hollowed out feeling. And I just want to say to every queer: you are valid, you are beautiful and strong. If anybody tells you otherwise? Seriously, fuck them. Sorry for the swearing, but this needs to be said.


And what I want to say is this, and I know I repeat myself, only read Orpheus Girl when you're in a good mental place. There is just so much dark stuff in there. If you read it though, the book will make you feel a lot and give you much to think about and sort through. It is definitely a book worth reading if you prepare for heavy stuff
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Orpheus Girl was a beautifully modern time tale of the classic myth about Orpheus. If you are like me and I’ll equipped when it comes to mythology you’ll love this recreation. To add to that, the author uses poetic like story telling while capturing your heart through the traumas the main character has to over come. A heart wrenching novel that proves how dangerous human ignorance can be while neglecting the very thing that separates us individual as people, and mistaking the that identity is not a freedom of choice. Additionally the hero of the novel is a lovable character filled with loneliness, and a deep level of self awareness that isn’t forgotten throughout her identity journey. Not to mention the love she shares with her very own Eurydice. It’s easy for me to say story grabbed my heart from the very beginning and I would recommend who loves YA to read this.
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As someone who isn't queer, I am definitely not the right person to properly review this, but I'll give a few thoughts. 

CW - homophobia, transphobia, self-harm, suicide attempt, conversion therapy

This is a devastating story about two queer girls who are publicly outed when caught together, and sent to a camp to be "fixed." It can be really painful and heartbreaking to read at times, but I really loved Raya and Sarah. Raya has a particular obsession with Greek mythology, and I really liked the author's way of weaving myths into the story.

I did find the writing style a bit too...amateur-ish, I guess is the best word. There are constant jumps between past and present, almost like a stream of consciousness, and it got really distracting for me to try and keep track of events. The writing is definitely my biggest complaint for the story, but it is a quick read otherwise.
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I wouldn't call reading about the abuse of my community pleasant, but these are very real and very hard things explored with care by Rebele-Henry. While I'm not super familiar with the story of Orpheus, that metaphor worked just fine for me. The absolute strength of this book is how unapologetically and indubitably the two main girls cling to their identities as  lesbians. Short hair, ugliness, and masculine energies are not seen as weird, gross, or lesser, and it was very powerful for me to read about these teens reclaiming the dyke identity! Yes!!!!
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I wanted to like this book, but I had some issues with it. First, I struggled to place the story in time. When i first started watching it, I thought it was set in the 1950s, and then maybe the 1980s/early 1990s, and it wasn’t until several chapters in that I realized it was set in the 2000s (but even still, I couldn’t quite figure out when), and that frustrated me, because I kept having to revise the images I had in my head of the characters and the setting. Second, I felt like the timeline while they were at the “reparative therapy” place was weird — it seemed like things happened after they had just been there a couple of days, but then the narrator would refer to things that made it seem much longer than that, which made it feel like things had gotten mixed up during revision of something. I also had a hard time believing the characters that ran the therapy program — they felt underdeveloped and like charicatures.
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A somber and moving story of two teen women descending into figurative hell and fighting to survive a world determined to deny them. It's certainly a retelling of the Greek myth, but the reader does not need to be familiar with the original tale to become immersed in Raya and Sarah's story. Be advised that the scenes depicting conversion therapy by way of electrocution are disturbing and graphic.
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This was a Do Not Finish for me. I did not like how it opened, the way the details of their sad lives were presented, and life is too short to read books that don't grab you. I was hopeful about the plot and the LGBTQ characters, but I think the book lacked some exposition.
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This was a difficult book to read and I spent most of my time angry at how the main characters were treated. It's also an important book for that reason. For my students who are able to handle heavier topics, I will definitely recommend Orpheus Girl.
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This book highlights the sad history of conversion camps and the trauma inflicted through reparative therapy. If you are unfamiliar with the camps designed to "repair" LGBTQ+ individuals, you should read this book to better understand the tragic history. Some individuals become the people who hurt others, while others run away from the communities and beliefs that hurt them, feeling forced to choose between family and love or religion and love.

If you identify as LGBTQ+, this book (although well-written) may just be triggering for you with its graphic depictions of the therapies used and the homophobic and transphobic incidents portrayed.


I only gave the book 4 stars because although I saw the parallels to the myth of Orpheus, it did not feel like a retelling.
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This didn't quite work for me. The beginning felt rushed; Raya and Sarah's relationship was so hard to follow that I couldn't tell if things were happening in real time or in flashbacks. The rest of the book was very spare, leading to the feeling that it was rushed and not very deep.
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I started this book with little idea of what it was about, apart from being influenced by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It's a beautiful and sad story about a man descending into the underworld to get his wife back, and being told that he can leave and his wife will follow but he must not look back or she will be lost forever. Obviously, he looks back.

Orpheus Girl is a lyrical, moving story about two girls who fall in love and descend into the 'underworld' of a conversion therapy camp. I love the way this story is written, and it's no surprise to me that the author is a poet, as there were lines in this book which were so good I reread them. 

There were some elements of this book which I really liked, such as the absence of Raya's mother and her characterisation as an actress playing Aphrodite on a crappy tv show. Sarah always felt like a bit of an enigma throughout the novel, which may be partially the point as it is from Raya's point of view, but I feel like we're not given quite enough information about her character to see her as more than the girl Raya loves. There are moments, when Raya remembers an intimate moment between them or recalls small details about something she said once etc, but I would have liked more of these.

I liked the emotional intensity of the book, and the evocation of the conversion therapy is very vivid, brutally  and viscerally so. I feel like there wasn't enough time spent with the other kids at the conversion therapy to view them as fully dimensional characters, which slightly lessened the impact of certain plot developments. I liked the portrayal of the woman who runs the camp, and the evolution of her morality throughout. 

Overall, I'm glad I read this book and enjoy it as a piece of writing, but as a novel it was slightly too languid/dreamy for my taste.
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3.5 Stars. 

The writing is absolutely beautiful. I'm interested to see where Rebele-Henry goes from here, as she's very clearly a promising new talent. The feel of the book -- especially the first half or so -- is just...extremely real. Raya's thoughts and emotions surrounding her coming out are ones that plagued by own teenage thoughts, and I'm sure that of other queer people as well. 

It was interesting that the book was set in the early 2000s -- references to the Britney/Madonna kiss and The L Word placing it solidly in my own teenage years. It was familiar but yet not quite, like looking at the era through a slightly clouded lens, though I don't think that detracts from the book at all. I'm curious as to why those were the years the author chose for her book to take place, but optimistically hope that it is because we as a society have grown more accepting in the years since. 

The Orpheus analogy feels clunky, like it either needs to be woven in more explicitly or pulled out entirely. The backmatter references the characters' counterparts within the Orpheus myth, which I found to be an odd choice, particularly since Raya explicitly mentions the myth numerous times in almost a 4th-wall breaking way. I'm not sure if that was the right route to go. 

The first third-to-half of the book is by far the strongest, and I think that the time in the conversion centre could have been explored more deeply -- the characters there don't come alive in the same way as Sarah, Raya, Grammy, et al. I was particularly interested in seeing more of Leon and Michael. 

Char's arc, too, could have been tightened up. Her motivation and transformation were hinted at, but could have been explored much more in depth. 

Overall, this is an important book for queer teens, who will see themselves represented in Raya's experiences. Furthermore, it explores the uncomfortable reality of "conversion" therapy and the horrors therein.
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The LGBT book I've been waiting to read my whole life. This is a powerful, moving book about two teens who are sent to a religious re-education camp, and about what happens when homophobia is left unchecked. It's absolutely incredible and a must-read.
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There is absolutely no reason for this book to be as awful as it is. If you're gonna write about queer pain, at least add some hope sprinkled in. This book hurt to read.
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I thought this book was very well written. I really enjoyed the romance between Sarah and Raya. The book was heartbreaking and beautifully written. The book was also unapologetically truthful to the horror of conversion therapy. So while I don't know if everyone would enjoy this book due to the graphic nature of this story, I do think that it was a well written and thought out tale. I also thought the greek mythology comparisons & connections were a nice touch. The only issues I had with it was that sometimes it was a little to text heavy or flashback heavy and not enough dialouge wise. I also really wanted to see what happens after they leave the conversion therapy camp. I have read a lot of books like this such as Cameron Post and The Summer I Wasn't Me. Both are good books, but I really hoped that they would explore more of what happens after someone escapes those camps rather than mostly focusing on the experience that they face in them. Not that those books shouldn't exist, I just wish more books discussed the aftermath and I was disappointed to see this book did not stray from that norm. However, I would love a sequel and how that the author will consider writing one. Overall, this was a pretty good book and would recommend it to anyone who feels they can handle the subject matter (if they can't for any reason it that is perfectly fine and understandable).
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