Book Review: ORPHEUS GIRL by Brynne Rebele-Henry

Orpheus Girl dwells on graphic queer pain with no clear purpose. A short, directionless debut from an author with tremendous future potential.

Book Cover: Orpheus Girl


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 fought to hide her feelings for her best friend and true love, Sarah. When the two are outed, 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 role of Orpheus, to return to the world of the living with her love—and after she, Sarah, and the other teen residents are subjected to abusive and brutal “treatments” by the staff, Raya only becomes more determined to escape.

In a haunting voice reminiscent of Sylvia Plath and the contemporary lyricism of David Levithan, Brynne Rebele-Henry weaves a powerful inversion of the Orpheus myth informed by the disturbing real-world truths of conversion therapy. Orpheus Girl is a story of dysfunctional families, trauma, first love, heartbreak, and ultimately, the fierce adolescent resilience that has the power to triumph over darkness and ignorance.

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.

Obviously, different people will have different reactions to the same book, and the reviews for Orpheus Girl have been pretty polarized. Here are some other readers’ responses (including several queer readers):

If you’re looking for more information on conversion therapy, past and present, here are some reality-based resources:

Content warning: Several of these resources include (non-graphic) descriptions of abuse of queer individuals and contain homophobic and transphobic rhetoric in quotes.

The Williams Institute on the current state of conversion therapy in the US (2018)

The American Psychological Association on conversion therapy and related practices (includes denouncement of such practices from a scientific and medical perspective)

Human Rights Campaign statement against conversion therapy, which includes links to professional associations’ statements

New York Times opinion section: “I Was Tortured in Gay Conversion Therapy. And It’s Still Legal in 41 States.” [TW: 1st person account of abuse]

Article on attempt to ban conversion therapy, Houston Public Media, 2019

Article on ban attempts, includes overview of present-day state of conversion therapy, Dallas News, 2019

You can see actual practitioners of present-day conversion therapy describe their process and goals here, here, and here. [TW: homophobic rhetoric]

Thank you to Soho Teen for the review copy of this title. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

Back to Top