Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2018

Welcome to Orphancorp, by Marlee Jane Ward #BookReview

The announcement this week that this year’s Seizure’s Novella prize has for the first time ever been won by New Zealanders Avi Duckor-Jones and Anna Jackson reminded me that I hadn’t yet read Welcome to Orphancorp which won the prize in 2015 – and also the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA…

Welcome to Orphancorp is a chilling read.  It’s a semi-futuristic dystopia in which the central character Mirii negotiates slavery in a brutal system designed to achieve compliant child workers.  These are the opening lines:

I twist my hand at a weird angle to get to the itch on my wrist below the shackle.  I mean, they call them ‘the Consequences of movement violations’, but shackles is what they are. When I forget to refer to them as such I get ‘the Consequences of speech violations’, which is pretty much just a gag. No one cares what I call that because everything sounds the same with a mouthful of rubber, doesn’t it?

The bus is ancient and jammed with kids, skinny bums jammed onto the bench seats. (p.1)

But as you can tell even from these brief lines, Orphancorp has failed to suppress Mirii’s personality and she has an engaging recklessness which serves her well.  Yes, it is risky to break the rules when, at almost eighteen years of age, she is so close to release but she has an irrepressible spirit.  It is that spirit that makes this otherwise grim novella bearable to read.

Compliance at an Orphancorp facility is achieved with punishments that escalate in severity to include solitary confinement with bread and water, and vividly depicted physical torture.  But – beyond the sardonically named Aunties and Uncles who administer the institution – someone in charge has decided that the littlest kids – babies to four year olds – need human love and affection if they are to mature into usable workers.  So the older orphans are assigned as nannies to care for them.  But after that, physical contact consists only of punishment until the kids take matters into their own hands and have secret cuddle sessions.  But they are obviously not so secret because it’s part of the grand master plan that the emerging sexuality of the adolescents will produce more babies in due course…

The system’s fatal flaw is its heartlessness:.  Transferred from one facility to another because of her ‘colourful file’, Marii looks the place over on arrival:

…I’m not sure why I bother.  Every Verity House is the same – a big grey box straddling an entire city block.  It’s like they knock them together off-site and heli them in or something.  Maybe they do, I don’t know. Broome or Blacktown, Albury, Cairns, or the one they say is on that island down in Tassie, it doesn’t matter.  The dining-room is always to the right of the dorms; the watch quarters have those thick double-brick walls that mean they’re easy to sneak past if the door’s closed; the bathrooms are sweet little Kidcam blind spots where I can read a non-reg book on my tab, have a cry or a quick-and-dirty interlude up against the wall without facing any of the related Consequences. In their hurry to manufacture heartless functionality, they’re made me a home. (p.3)

So, bleak and inhumane as it is, this environment allows for Mirii to grow and learn, to form relationships and to have some fun.  Inmates can acquire benefits through ‘trades’ – legitimate in the case of working extra hours to earn a tablet and enrol in educational courses, and covert in the case of trading extra rations for the services of a lookout, or a co-conspirator in thefts from the medicine cabinet.  It’s nice to see that the human spirit ultimately prevails, as it must.

My only concern is the YA tag.  Orphancorp has the usual YA tropes, but while maturity levels vary, IMO it’s definitely one for older readers.  The nightmarish depiction of torture is not something I’d recommend for kids in the early years of high school.

Author: Marlee Jane Ward
Title: Welcome to Orphancorp
Publisher: Seizure by Zoum, 2015
ISBN: 9781921134586
Source: Personal copy, bought direct from Seizure $14.95.  Their current edition has a new cover, equally compelling.


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