Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry – Review

Abandoned by a single mother she never knew, 16-year-old Raya—obsessed with ancient myths—lives with her grandmother in a small conservative Texas town. For years Raya has hidden her feelings for her best friend and true love, Sarah. When the two are caught in an intimate moment, they are sent to Friendly Saviors: a re-education camp meant to “fix” them and make them heterosexual. Upon arrival Raya vows to assume the mythic role of Orpheus to save them both and to return them to the world of the living, at any cost. 

In a haunting voice reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, with the contemporary lyricism of David Levithan, Orpheus Girl is a mythic story of dysfunctional families, first love, heartbreak—and the fierce adolescent resilience that has the power to triumph over darkness and ignorance.

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Thank you to Edelweiss for this ARC! I saw the synopsis and immediately knew it was a story I wanted to read. Inspired by Greek myths, Orpheus Girl is a tale of love, and the forces that will stop at nothing to extinguish it. The backdrop for the story was all too familiar; a small town in the middle of nowhere with people who had even smaller minds. Growing up in such places can make you feel like you’re in a place time hasn’t touched. Sure, they have cell phones and a bathroom inside their house, but will they stand for someone who is in love with a person of the same sex as them?

The answer, as our protagonist Raya soon finds out, is no. From birth, she was different. She was born with extra bones on her back that almost looked like the sprouting of wings. They were removed, of course, but throughout her life the absence of them caused her excruciating anxiety and self doubt. She felt ugly because of her scars, until Sarah. They grew up together, and recognized a deep longing in each other that they couldn’t let surface around anyone else. They spent their time emulating the popular girls; trying to hide. When they are suddenly found out, the church that they both attend recommends a conversion camp.

This is the most haunting narrative I’ve ever read about these horrific places. What makes it even worse is that I know these things have happened and continue to happen to human beings. Raya, Sarah, and their newfound friends at Friendly Saviors walk through hell and back. They are abandoned by those they love and trusted most; their family. They are told day in and day out that they are wrong, broken, and doomed. This plus the myriad of ‘treatments’ forced upon them do nothing besides make them a shell of their former selves. It’s a race against time as Raya and Sarah try to escape with not only each other, but their minds.

I loved the Greek myth aspect of this book, and how wonderfully matched the characters were to their respective god or goddess. Raya is of course Orpheus, and Sarah her wife; Eurydice, whom Orpheus goes to hell (conversion therapy) to rescue. There’s plenty more in the cast of characters, but I thought that the most poignant was the name of Raya’s hometown in Texas. Pieria was also Orpheus’s birthplace, and later became his burial site. One can only assume that if Raya stays in her town, she would never leave and would continue to pretend her entire life.

All in all, this is a heartbreaking story that is unfortunately a reality for many LGBTQ+ kids in less accepting places. We need narratives like these so we don’t forget their suffering, and that conversion camps are still a very real, very scary thing. One day I hope that this novel and others like it will become like the Greek gods and goddesses it holds in reverence; myths. We’ve made a lost of progress as a nation, but we still have so far to go, and I’m so grateful to this lyrical journey for going on a mission to remind others of that fact.

5/5 stars

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