Cover Image: Orpheus Girl

Orpheus Girl

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TW: homophobia, transphobia, misgendering, emotional and physical abuse, violence, suicide ideation, death, use of homophobic slurs

This is trauma porn. I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt and say they wanted to expose the horrors of conversion therapy. Because, without a doubt, conversion therapy is evil. But this almost fetishized all the pain and trauma that many LGBTQ teens/youth live through. It was painful to read, but not the kind of painful that teaches you new things or makes you grow. No, this was just awful and insanely triggering. 

There was no delicacy when talking about truly awful things (like electro shock therapy). It was just a constant ramping up of pain and mistreatment. It made no sense to the plot or characters, and served very little purpose. 

Besides the bad writing, bad characterization, and disjointed plot, this read as a laundry list of horrible things that happen to queer people. I was ready to DNF at 30% but finished reading with the hopes it redeemed itself—it never does. 

**Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an ecopy in exchange for an honest review.**
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Orpheus Girl dwells on graphic queer pain with no clear purpose. A short, directionless debut from an author with tremendous future potential.


At the risk of spoiling the plot of this very short book, here’s the deal with Orpheus Girl:

Raya has three interests, we are told: the television career of her absent mother, Greek mythology, and girls. She knows her generically conservative small Texas town wouldn’t tolerate a relationship between two girls, so she alternates between careless hookups in semi-public places and shame-drenched efforts to appear straight.

The first third of the book describes Raya’s family, sexual history, and deepening relationship with Sarah. At about the 34% mark, she and Sarah are caught and sent to the same “conversion therapy” camp. The remaining 2/3 of the book describe, in graphic detail, the verbal abuse and physical torture of the two girls and the others trapped in the camp.

So what’s the point?

That’s the question I kept coming back to: what is the point of this story? Nothing seems to quite make sense. Orpheus Girl lacks the basic elements that do the job of a novel (developed and compelling characters, narrative arc). Instead, I just have 200 pages of things happening, mostly the same things over and over, and I’m just not sure where the value is.

Maybe the point is to shed light on the real horrors of conversion therapy, but that doesn’t quite make sense. The book is extremely vague about specifics–it took me a long time to cobble together enough details to understand what decade it is supposed to be int he book, and I still don’t know the exact year. Rebele-Henry is consistently uninterested in portraying the situation with literal accuracy. True-to-life details (the names of background characters, the nature of the camp’s punishments) are often replaced with less realistic details for the sake of the mythology metaphor. (I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. You can write a good book taking deep artistic liberties, but it does mean “accurately portraying a real-world injustice” isn’t accomplished by this book.)

Maybe the point is to serve as a warning and to impress upon readers the humanity of queer people, but the book doesn’t accomplish that either. Describing the pain of a character doesn’t necessarily invoke their humanity. When done poorly, it actually dehumanizes them by serving up their pain as entertainment to be consumed, and that’s the case here. Orpheus Girl doesn’t offer any ideas about how people do (or should) respond to suffering, why people inflict suffering on others (except for “homophobes are secretly gay,” and, yikes), or how people can respond to pain in the world. The pain is just there without comment. In addition, all of the characters, including the main couple, are exceptionally flat. Nothing about them communicated that we’re supposed to see them as real people.

Maybe the point is simply to put forward the image of a young queer girl as a modern Orpheus escaping the hell of a conversion camp, but there’s no real retelling here. Raya often reminds the reader that she thinks of herself as Orpheus, but there’s no depth to the metaphor. I can’t see how it extends past the initial connection. That image would be a wonderful starting place for a poem or a painting, but a novel needs much more to go on. The book doesn’t provide anything that you don’t get from the cover.

If you’re dwelling on queer pain in graphic detail, you need to have a point, but I don’t think Rebele-Henry has one here. It seems that she’s counting on the raw horror of the situation to substitute in for a story, and that just doesn’t make a compelling novel for me.

In YA, scenes that portray abuse of teens (especially of marginalized teens) in graphic detail need to be handled with extreme care. I‘m not saying they shouldn’t be done; some of the most powerful recent YA contemporaries rely on key scenes that immerse the reader in moments of fear, pain, and horror. But it must be done well. Those scenes must be contextualized in a thoughtful, mature narrative, not splattered across the pages like paint and left there. There must be a clear purpose for including them, and there has to be a chance for catharsis. Teen readers should experience those scenes with the understanding that when they’re through, there will be a release of tension and a new understanding. This doesn’t mean a sunshiney happily-ever-after; it means a chance for growth. (I actually believe this is true for all books, but it’s especially important for YA.)

This author has great work in store, but just isn’t there yet.

Brynne Rebele-Henry, the galley note is anxious to tell us, is a prolific poet and still a teen. Those qualities (touted as advantages by the book’s marketing) make complete sense when looking at the book’s shortcomings.

From a craft perspective, the book is excessively repetitive and has little narrative structure. It has intense emotion and an extended metaphor instead of character development. These qualities are perfect in poetry, but don’t translate well to the novel. (I was reminded of another recent read, Who Put This Song On?, by Morgan Parker, another poet’s first novel, which has similar problems jumping forms.)

The book has intense raw emotion, yes, but doesn’t look at a big enough picture to have any context or perspective. The writing is poetic but immature, and the supporting characters are cardboard-cutouts of baseless evil. That’s all perfectly understandable coming from a teen debut.

If a 19-year-old friend dropped this manuscript on my desk, I’d be so excited for them. It would show me raw talent, bravery, and a keen eye for metaphor. I’d tell them, honestly, that I thought they had tremendous talent and should keep writing, because their next book is going to be something special. But I would never tell them to try to get that manuscript published as-is. It just isn’t ready.


Content warnings for Orpheus Girl include homophobia/transphobia/queer hate (on-page, portrayed negatively), discussion of suicidal ideation, semi-on-page suicide attempt, family abandonment and rejection, on-page injury, on-page serious car collision, and depiction of abuse of queer people including highly graphic scenes of electroshock therapy. The book also includes moderate language and moderate on-page sexual content.
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dnf @ 89 pages. I just could NOT get into this book. at first I was really excited and intrigued by the premise but this book just didn’t deliver. It felt like a college essay back when there was a prompt about a fictional character influencing your life. The author just kept saying “and like Orpheus”. Like WE GET IT! This was just soooo boring and on top of the author constantly trying to guide me through the book rather than letting me read it myself, I’m glad I didn’t waste my time finishing this book.
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Orpheus Girl is a heartbreaking story about two queer girls who are sent to a camp to be "fixed."  It's definitely a heavy book that faces a lot of difficult topics head on. Raya and Sarah are such beautiful characters, and I cherished reading the relationship between the two. Raya's obsession with Greek mythology, and particularly the story of Orpheus resonated throughout the story, and it was really interesting seeing the author interweave myths into the story.
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I found the writing in this book to be quite confusing, particularly at the beginning. It took me a while to realise how long Sarah and Raya had been together/known each other. 

However the book did tackle really serious topics. I would recommend this to those looking for a really deep discussion on homophobia and conversion therapy. For me, the book was difficult and uncomfortable to read. While this may have been the intent, I will find this book difficult to recommend for our regular teen customers.
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I wanted to love this. I found the writing style to be very awkward and bland. I appreciated the nonlinear story telling and I love the retelling aspect, but it was too on the nose for me. 

I feel like it would benefit from another round of edits.
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Thank you to Netgalley for providing an e-arc in exchange for an honest review!

This was a HEAVY read. Every step of the way, Raya broke my heart. She's a teen in middle of nowhere, conservative, religious Texas, she's gay, and loves her best friend Sarah. She's been hiding who she truly is her whole life and when the truth comes to light, she is "disappeared."

I was constantly uncomfortable while reading this, whether it was because of the awful things the supposed Christians said to her or the "treatment" she had to endure so she could "fixed." This book is not for the faint of heart but is one everybody should read.
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Orpheus Girl was a short, hard-hitting novel. The plot of the book was unlike anything I have ever read and while reading, I couldn't help but think about how many people were forced to go through such a traumatic experience and it broke my heart.

The characters were well developed and I liked how the author was in the present but kept flashing back to the past. This helped to 'set the scene' - as it were - of the deeply religious town and the people who lived there. 

I wished that the book was longer and perhaps spent more time at the conversion therapy to really show how desolate the main characters became from the trauma they were put through. (SIDENOTE: I know that seems strange to have wanted the author to delve more into that, but I find - personally - that the most amazing part of the book is when the characters gain their strength again and fight for themselves despite having hit rock bottom and feeling helpless and hopeless). 

The only other thing is that the author said the same thing many times and while that may go unnoticed in a longer book, I noticed it more as it was quite short. 

Apart from those two things, I thought this book was brilliant and thought-provoking. The writing itself flowed so nicely and really suited the voice of the main character. I think this is definitely a book to check out, but please be warned of the dark themes of this book and potential triggers.
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I didn't like this book. It seems to be everything I want in a book: teen lesbians and Greek mythology. It's not because this book was sad and depressing (which it was) but a lot of scenes made no sense to me and everything went by in a blur. The writing was not my favourite. Raya's narration seems a bit "This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and then it ended." Even the scenes that I think were supposed to be wild and crazy, like the car crash or their escape, seemed so nonchalant. It read a bit like "We escaped the place, then we got into a car crash. Then we woke up at a new place." Like what??? A car crash just happened and we're moving on already?? I know people hate comparing all conversion therapy books to The Miseducation of Cameron Post but this just DEFINITELY reminded me of that book with the addition of the electroshock therapy. There's the 2 gay girls and the one gay flamboyant guy (who is basically Boris from The Goldfinch) and the one staff-member who is struggling with their gayness themself. It didn't seem original to me and it just seemed like another sad gay conversation therapy novel. There were also some parts that I feel were unnecessary, like Raya's obsession with her absent mother or her "love" for Greek mythology that was never really shown whatsoever. Another thing that was unecessary: putting which Greek myth character corresponds to the book character at the back. It sort of cheapened the idea of figuring out the symbolism to me. Their escape and Char's confliction personality that was only used for convenience made no sense. 

The whole retelling was not really a retelling besides Raya repeating "I'm like Orpheus because I'm going to get my girl!" I thought for sure that Sarah was going to stay behind and either die or actually want to be turned straight. 

While I know this book will help some other people, it definitely didn't move me emotionally.
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Orpheus Girl is the story of a young lesbian, Raya, growing up in Texas during the 90s knowing full well that who she is, must remain hidden. 

Raya, Orpheus, was left with her Grammy at two years old when her mom went off to be a tv star. Raya and her Grammy have lived with the grief ever since. Raya, who has no mother, has scars from a childhood surgery, must hide who she truly is, who she loves, in order to stay safe. But even when you’re so careful, sometimes being caught is inevitable. Orpheus must descend into hell in order to save Eurydice.

The writing is very poetic and beautiful and the style is gripping and romantic - even when horrifying you. For such a small book, it packs a seriously moving and empactful punch. I for one cannot wait for more books by Rebele-Henry, her way with prose and of making a classic myth story queer is all I need to want more.
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I unfortunately just wasn't a fan of the writing with this one. I'm sure others will like it, but I don't know that I'm the right audience- I was intrigued by the plot, but wasn't able to enjoy myself while reading.
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While poetic at times, I felt like this book was missing the factor to both being me in, and then keep me reading. This book is a topical subject of LGBT youth in small town America, as someone who grew you in that atmosphere it should have grabbed my attention and kept me there, but instead I was more interested in the language of the writing and the weird formatting of the book, 

So, overall, while the themes are hard, and the story has a wonderful ending, I’m not sure this is something I would talk about outside my grievances while reading.
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This was a phenomenal book and also a very hard book. The concept of a Orpheus and Eurydice retelling with a lesbian couple in a gay conversion camp is so fascinating. It was executed very well. The characters are dynamic, fascinating people. Even though this is a shorter book, just shy of 200 pages, there is a lot packed into here. 
While I loved this book, it was also very hard to read. There were quite a few times that I had to put it down. This book doesn't shrink away from some very important issues.
TW: Homophobia, violence to LGBTQ characters, and Conversion Therapy.
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*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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