DANIEL FINDLAY Year of the Orphan. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Year of the Orphan is a distinctive story of bravery, resilience and self-sacrifice in a vicious, haunting future.
Sometimes it feels as though the most pressing question of the 21st century is how we can best prepare for the apocalyptic collapse of civilisation that’s surely coming. Futurist authors such as Australian Daniel Findlay hint at what post-collapse society might be like – and remind us of what we should appreciate now.
Findlay’s debut novel, Year of the Orphan, is set in outback Australia hundreds of years from now, in and around a place called the System, an iron-walled town. The recently formed council runs the System, tithing its residents and posting sentries at the gates.
Outside the System, past the Boundaries, is the Glows, a harsh landscape marked by Spirals and populated by Ghosts – but not the spiritual type. Inside the System is a slave market, escalating disease (a ‘strange rot’) and the Stacks, a labyrinth built of tyres and other refuse that the Orphan calls home. The System’s dead are taken to the burn pits. Water is scarce. Literacy is scarce. Blindness and dust abound.
The Glows, Spirals, the Ghosts, Ciphers, the Reckoner – Findlay has crafted a rich world with its own vocabulary, and part of the pleasure of his novel is the gradual unravelling of its many mysteries (though some readers might find this slightly too gradual, especially in the first few chapters). Its vocabulary is one aspect of the novel’s futuristic dialect, used throughout:
The aird been cold an clear the last few nights and she’d no need of her wrap, shipless as she were. Still, she’d slept with it stuffed in her mouth in case she cried out, though she reckoned she’d beat that habit a long time ago. All them stories but it dint change there were a fella trackin her and she dint like bein hunted. Dint sit right at all. There werent nuthin certain but wun thing, the Reckoner were coming.
The Orphan’s world is marked by violent justice and the omnipresent fear of attacks from Ghosts and other rumoured terrors. Even God has crumbled to dust, with phrases like ‘God knows’ replaced by ‘dust knows’, and only the vague cultural memory of ‘a god with three heads and couldnt never be kilt’.
Two narratives unfold throughout the novel. As a bayonet-wielding adult, the secretive, resourceful Orphan risks her life to uncover the mysteries of the past, travelling on a wind-powered ‘sand yacht’ called the Wide Open Road. The second narrative begins just as the Orphan loses her family as a young girl. The earlier narrative further splinters, revealing both the Orphan’s childhood and the rise of the council in the anarchic System.
Findlay blends mystery and adventure in his dystopian future, and includes elements of cli-fi, particularly in the post-winter setting:
The old drunk were wun of them that reckoned he remembered Winter. It werent true of course, couldnt be. The last Winter happened a long time before them what was born now and nowun could remember that far back. A long time ago that fellas who made the paper and roads mighta known what Winter was and who knew how far back that were? Now it were just the liars in the System.
A refreshing aspect of Year of the Orphan is that, despite its main character being female, there’s no scene featuring brutal men attempting to rape her. While Findlay occasionally hints at the Orphan’s vulnerability in the company of men, he chooses to set aside the inevitable sexual violence of the post-apocalyptic world.
Ultimately, this is an imaginative exploration of a future in which the past – our present – is being lost, and the dangers that creates. Some in the System are uninterested in what’s come before, while others like the Orphan are driven to understand the past as the key to survival. But as most paper has crumbled with age, the past is becoming increasingly unknowable:
She never knew just how how long ago the longago was but judgin by the bones she passed an the ash that was built up in drifts itd happened long before her mum was born, looked like the works of people was blendin back into the land and soon enough all that was gunna be left would be broken and unformed memories in the heads of them that wandered the waste. Werent no way she could wrap her head around how these fellas musta lived, all she could do was scav through the wreck of their times.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about apocalyptic stories is their ability to highlight the best of humanity in the worst of conditions, as the Year of the Orphan does. It is a distinctive story of bravery, resilience and self-sacrifice in a vicious, haunting future.
Daniel Findlay Year of the Orphan Bantam 2017 PB 304pp $32.99
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith Review, McSweeney’s and Right Now. She teaches writing and public speaking, performs stand-up and has written two memoirs. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
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