Stories about post-apocalyptical societies have had an upswing in the last few years, in everything from young adult blockbusters like The Hunger Games or Divergent, to new instalments in long-running franchises like the Fallout video games, or the classic dystopian world of the Mad Max films. But in an increasingly turbulent political environment where the threat of nuclear apocalypse seems possible again, we don’t appear to be getting bored of the genre.
Year of the Orphan is Daniel Findlay’s debut novel, and follows the teenaged protagonist, known only as the Orphan, as she tries to uncover the truth about the past to protect her society’s future. It’s told in two timelines; the main story, with plain numbered chapters, and the past, labelled as ‘Before’. In the Before, we see the Orphan when she loses her family and is sold into slavery. In the present, she’s on the run from a bogeyman figure called the Reckoner, who is seemingly out to get her in the post-apocalyptic wastelands—what is left of Australia after the spread of radiation from the Maralinga nuclear tests in the 1950s.
This is not a heart-warming tale of companionship in the shadow of the inevitable. This is survival, pure and simple. There’s no energy for raised emotions and heightened relationships, it’s detached and drudging and constant. The entire novel is written in a dialectical English that is a constant reminder of how these people are shaped by their environment. Words are lost, and gained, and changed. I spent a good chunk of the beginning of the book just trying to work out what some of the more ominous terms ‘translated’ to. We’re thrown head first into this world, sparse and nihilistic, left to fend for ourselves. Findlay unveils his secrets in tantalisingly sparse tidbits of detail, enough clues linking the Orphan’s world to our own that the how and why becomes a mystery to be solved.
All the same, there’s a difference between sparse and slow, and this tended towards the latter. In any story where a lot of worldbuilding is taking place, a gentle start is appreciated, but the split timelines in particular slowed this down a lot. In the beginning, the gaps between past and present were so vast that I was far more interested in the Orphan’s backstory than the desert scavenging of the present. As story built and the action progressed, the Befores became a drag.
Even so, Year of the Orphan is an engaging novel. Findlay’s characters, though few and far between, are a strength. Block, a young mob-boss style character in the System, presents a brutal front but pays scavengers for books and maps and attempts to learn – correcting himself from the use of Findlay’s dialectical English to the use of ‘proper’ words. Karra, who buys the Orphan out of slavery, is self-interested, brutal and greedy and driven to paranoia by the society he lives in. The characters are rough and gritty and forged by their landscape; whether that breaks them or makes them human is dependent on the person.
And at its heart that’s what Year of the Orphan is about: societies, and people, about how they destroy each other. We see it throughout the novel on individual scales, and through widespread bloodshed, and in the very fact of the Maralinga tests themselves. We’ve brought this apocalypse upon ourselves, and we continue to. And if people destroy each other, is there any chance that might be able to save each other?
The answer, in typical post-apocalyptical fashion, seems to be ‘probably not, but we’ll try anyway’, although that’s certainly open to interpretation. Maybe I’m just more soft-hearted than I’d like to think. One minor complaint is that the most engaging relationship in the entire novel is unnecessarily turned romantic in the last few chapters, a choice that threatens to drag a decidedly adult novel back into tropey young adult territory. I was hoping Findlay would stick out the Pacific Rim-style brothers-in-arms relationship to the end, because romance really isn’t the only type of meaningful connection, and a platonic relationship would have done just as well to prove the point. But it’s a tiny fraction of the relationship, and I can forgive it (or ignore it).
Year of the Orphan is an excellently written debut novel, and a compelling take on the post-apocalyptic genre. Its world and circumstances are fully fleshed out in a way that forces us to look at the weight of our past and our present, and the impact on the future.
And despite all odds, it’s a little bit heart-warming.