This review/analysis contains mild spoilers for Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward.
Australia outsourced the role of providing foster care and prisons to a for profit corporation.
The story is told through the perspective of 17-year-old Mirii. She is one week shy of her 18th birthday and escaping the Orphancorp system. The story starts when she is transferred into a new facility. This gives us the perspective that even though she is seasoned in the system that it’s still full of new characters. If she is good she will be released and if she misbehaves she will ended up in a Prisoncorp.
This delicate balance between her rebellious nature and the opportunity to escape the system that has been repressing her as a child is the main internal struggle for Mirii.
Miriiyanan Mahoney (known as Mirii) is the narrator of Welcome to Orphancorp. She is a week off being eighteen and has been in the system for years. She is a wiz at gadgets and tattoos. Despite being the narrator you don’t a lot of insight into her past, just glimpses such as memories of her parents. She’s more interested in telling you how she knows the system and how she survives which can be interpreted as a defence mechanism for the horrifying life she’s led so far. She comes across as incredibly intelligent, sarcastic and insightful. She still manages to make meaningful connections with others in the house, knowing the relationships she makes could be pulled apart at any time.
There are numerous characters who show up only for a few moments which gives the realistic feeling of being in a large institution but is sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who. It also feels like no one is truly fleshed out as a character other than Mirii as she doesn’t get time to get to know her roommates other than superficially. It does occasionally feel like some characters served to move the plot along such as the tech wiz at the very end.
The secondary characters that stood out:
Cam works with Mirii in the workshop as her runner. He is significantly younger than her and she is incredibly hostile to him at first. She sees the younger children as trouble. She warms up to Cam and advises him to go to school so he can at least have some smarts about him when he gets out.
Freya is set up as the antagonist early on in the story when Mirii catches her as she’s trying to escape. Despite Freya causing issues for Mirii, ultimately she isn’t the main antagonist of the story. She’s just like Mirii – trying to survive and escape the system. The system itself is the ultimate antagonist and the aunts and uncles serve it.
The entire story is set within Verity House which is described as “a big grey box straddling an entire city block.” The technology and slang imply it is set in a not-to-distant future but we don’t get much of an outline about how updated technology is other than what serves the story. The technology is almost an afterthought and merely a plot device, the strength in the story doesn’t come from the setting or the technology but rather the characters themselves.
Mirii never states she’s bisexual but early on she says “I can’t tell if they’re male or female, but it doesn’t matter because sweet babes need no gender.” The use of sexuality as another means to survive the system is incorporated seamlessly into the narrative and there are never any “ick” moments, despite the orgy that happens halfway through.
Privatisation of State Services
The concept of privatising the foster care and prison system seem farfetched in the current Australian system. On closer inspection of our history as well as the American trend to farm out services previously provided by the state to corporations, it suddenly isn’t a huge leap of the imagination.
The business model plays on current trends in the foster care and prison system. Statistically, a ward of the state is more likely to not complete education, have unplanned pregnancies, end up in prison or experience mental illness. The fact that a corporation has decided to use this to gain profit is ingenious and horrifying at the same time.
Abuse and Neglect in Institutions
The physical, emotional and sexual abuse of institutions is touched upon in the delivery of Mirii’s narration as well as how the characters interact with each other. The reliance on sexual intimacy to replace the emotional support given by parents is what begins the orgy scene. It feels like a natural by-product of the environment. There is no outright depiction of sexual abuse but it is stated that the uncles have inappropriate relationships with girls in exchanges for drugs and protection. The physical abuse is the only abuse that is outright depicted with Mirii in starting the story in shackles and a gag.
Race is lightly touched upon in the story. Mirii believes she is Indigenous as her name means shooting star in Gamilaraay but she does concede she only knows this because she looked it up. Otherwise, she has no connection to her culture other than her name and a brief memory of a dark skinned woman she believes was her mother.. She scolds a younger resident on using derogatory terms towards Aboriginal people. It isn’t a major component of the story but it feels right to be in there due to the over-representation of Indigenous children currently in the foster care and prison systems.
Welcome to Orphancorp is a great young adult read touching on a number of issues with a unique voice. Set in a dystopian near future Australia where the foster care and prison systems have been given to a private corporation, it explores the themes of sexuality, institutional abuse and race with sensitivity and wit. The restricted viewpoint of Mirii gives readers a glimpse into the results of a terrifying future for disadvantaged young people but also holding a mirror to current issues within the system. It is a solid debut novella from Marlee Jane Ward.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward won Seizure’s Viva La Novella 3 and the 2016 Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction. It was shortlisted for the NSW Premiers Award, Aurealis Award and the Norma K Hemming Award. It is available from Seizure, Amazon, iBooks, Google Play, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Gleebooks and Readings.
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