Friday, August 7, 2015
Review: Orphan #8
Kim van Alkemade
paperback, 416 pages
William Morrow Paperbacks
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Kim van Alkemade's debut novel, Orphan #8, is an impressive achievement--and it's one of my favorite books so far in 2015.
What makes this novel so perfect? First of all, Alkemade has written a beautifully textured historical novel, rooted in fact and a fascinating, somewhat obscure corner of history. She writes so convincingly about two distinct periods of history (the early 20th century and the early 1950's) that the reader just revels in the sensory detail. And she creates a richly imagined world, peopled with compelling characters.
The novel begins in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York. Visha and Harry Rabinowitz are making ends meet by taking in boarders and living mostly on soup and boiled potatoes. Their two young children, Rachel and Sam, are suddenly and dramatically left alone in the world (a moment Alkemade handles masterfully). Rachel, who is only four years old, ends up in the Hebrew Infant Home, where she becomes part of a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Mildred Solomon, one of a very few female doctors working in that time period.
The chapters set in the early part of the century (beginning in 1919) alternate with chapters set in 1954; Rachel has become a nurse in the Old Hebrews Home, in the hospice wing. Dr. Solomon, now dying of bone cancer, comes into Rachel's care. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to understand the nature of Dr. Solomon's experiments, and the cost of the experiments for Rachel. At the same time, Rachel herself grows to see how Dr. Solomon has profoundly affected her life and her health.
Alkemade uses the alternating chapters to build tension, as the reader starts to put together the full story of Rachel's life. What I loved about Orphan # 8 was the moral and narrative complexity of the novel. Much of the book is firmly rooted in real historical events, and there is a section at the end of the book detailing the historical basis for the novel. The narrative takes the reader from New York to Colorado and back to New York again. The story of what happens to Rachel and her brother Sam seems almost unbelievable, but it is based on actual events and places, which adds to the sense of historical richness. I also loved the fact that Alkemade created a complex character in Rachel, a girl who has to make her way in the world without the support of parents or family. Along the way, Rachel discovers that she is deeply attracted to women, and her romantic relationships with women are depicted in a way that develops naturally out of the narrative. Orphan #8 is so nuanced, lyrical, and beautiful, and the novel manages to do so many things with grace and insight. It's really hard to believe that this is a first novel because it is so gorgeously written, fully imagined, and perfectly realized.
Orphan #8 pretty much includes every element I love to find in a work of fiction. For those who love historical fiction, you are in for a treat. I would recommend Orphan #8 for readers of literary fiction, those looking for a nuanced presentation of lesbian characters, and readers of literary fiction.