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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Orphanage

Serhiy Zhadan

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To purchase The Orphanage

Title: The Orphanage
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 324 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: The Orphanage - US
The Orphanage - UK
The Orphanage - Canada
Internat - Deutschland
Il convitto - Italia
  • Ukrainian title: Інтернат
  • Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

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Our Assessment:

B : a familiar kind of trek and story, but well done (and too close for comfort)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 17/5/2018 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/9/2022 Sophie Pinkham
Publishers Weekly . 2/12/2020 .
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 12/3/20218 Felix Stephan
TLS . 3/9/2021 Amelia Glaser

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a gray, marginal world in which life is punctuated by bursting shells and the ebb and flow of soldiers from either side. The border shifts so often that it’s hard to keep track of who’s in power. Ambient dread gives the novel a dystopian flavor (some have compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), but Zhadan is writing about real life. (...) Reading Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler’s impeccably idiomatic translation of The Orphanage, the Anglophone reader may wonder about the language of the original. (...) The Orphanage is monolingual, written entirely in Ukrainian. In spite of the dystopian landscape, the highly textured, politicized, contested surface of language in Ukraine is smoothed into an almost utopian homogeneity, even as Zhadan recognizes the significance of language choice in the politics of Ukraine, especially in the embattled eastern regions. It’s a political-linguistic soft-focus lens, blurring away strife even as it contributes to the project of building the Ukrainian literary canon." - Sophie Pinkham, The New York Review of Books

  • "With a poet's sense of lyricism, Zhadan employs descriptions of weather and the sky as literal physical challenges but also as powerful metaphors for lack of transparency, justice, and truth, and the translators deserve credit for rendering Zhadan's prose into colloquial English." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Der Krieg ist in diesem Roman keine Charakterschule, sondern eine Charakterprüfung, der sich, ob sie wollen oder nicht, sämtliche Beteiligte zu unterziehen haben. (...) In der Disziplin der rhythmischen Kriegsbetrachtung befindet sich Serhij Zhadan jedenfalls eher in der Linie von Heiner Müller als in der von Carl Schmitt. Am Krieg fasziniert ihn eher die Entmenschlichung, die Kreatürlichkeit, das sinnlose Verrecken als das identitätsstiftende Moment und die schöpferische Ordnung." - Felix Stephan, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "(B)rilliantly rendered into English by Reilly Costigan-Humans and Isaac Wheeler (.....) Like much of Zhadan's prose, The Orphanage is a lyrical story of a man at once intimately familiar with, and irreparably alienated from, his native region. The gender divide is a particularly strong theme." - Amelia Glaser, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Orphanage is set in eastern Ukraine -- presumably the Donbas region --, at the time when Russian troops and Russian-backed insurgents militarily supported the separatist efforts there; the novel takes place over three days during which pro-Russian forces advanced into an unnamed major Ukrainian city. The main figure in The Orphanage is Pasha, a teacher of Ukrainian who lives in a settlement called 'the Station', in the vicinity of the unnamed metropolis -- a distant suburb, of sorts. With the city coming under siege, Pasha's father wants to collect teenage Sasha, the son of Pasha's twin sister, from the boarding school in the city he attends. [It's unclear why the novel is called The Orphanage; the Ukrainian title -- Інтернат -- is not the Ukrainian word/expression for 'orphanage'; it means 'boarding school', which is, in fact, the kind of institution Sasha is at; he is also not an orphan.] Pasha's father is in no condition to go on such an expedition, so a reluctant Pasha agrees to do what has to be done.
       Pasha has a hand injury and a heart condition, which he can hold up when asked why he isn't fighting on one side or the other, but Pasha's preference is for remaining uninvolved regardless. He tries to be not just apolitical but to completely avoid even being aware of the tensions around him. (That said, he is well aware that the subject he teaches -- the Ukrainian language -- instantly labels him for many.) Back in the day, when he finished school, Pasha left the Station to go to college, in the big city, a: "step beyond the boundaries of his cocoon" which nearly overwhelmed him; although he adjusted, he did everything he could to get back to the safe-familiar of his childhood home as soon as he could: "back to his cocoon, back to where he was at peace". It's the one place he feels comfortable, despite its limitations (and lack of comforts); as he recalls nostalgically from the war-zone: "He always loved the Station".
       Of course, there's no hiding from the real world and all its ugliness -- but Pasha tried to do his best all these years. He admits to not reading the news, and when asked whether he watches TV: "'I don't,' Pasha says. 'I don't like politics.'" The woman he lived with saw how things were going, the threats that were approaching, and had begged him to leave the previous fall, but:

He said that they had nothing to be scared of, that they didn't have anything to do with this, that they weren't taking sides. Pasha was "just a teacher, just a teacher," he kept repeating, seemingly apologizing for being just a teacher. He didn't really care about anything else. Where would he go ? What use would he be anywhere else ? They don't have anything to be afraid of. Everything's fine. He's just a teacher.
       Of course, everything is far from fine, and by the time he heads out, in search of his nephew, the world around him is literally collapsing. Not having followed the build-up to the military confrontation he wades into, he is repeatedly surprised by just what is going on -- but the absurdity of contemporary urban warfare is, per se, baffling; as Zhadan suggests, no less so to those who are in, some way, better informed, or in the middle of it.
       Pasha's policy of avoidance -- not just of not choosing sides, but even just of any involvement -- only gets him so far, especially once he has to head into the combat zone. Still, even all along his path there, he tries to shrink from any view, to pass as unnoticed as possible. (Admittedly, such a head-down approach would seem to be the obvious choice in a war zone.) Interaction with others is unavoidable, but even here Pasha generally tries to fit in as easily as possible, and not ruffle any feathers. Of course, it's easy to see through him too:
     "You agree with everyone, don't you ?" She keeps smiling, but Pasha isn't sure whether he should be enjoying this. "Nobody really cares if you agree with them or not, though"
       When he does take a stand -- at the city train station, where many have taken refuge, he demands the occupying forces provide food and transportation -- it almost comes as a surprise -- but Pasha does show a bit of mettle along the way, especially once he's taken over responsibility for his nephew. If he does not exactly rise to the situation -- certain traits are too deeply ingrained -- he does show himself to be more enterprising, and to do what is necessary.
       The Orphanage covers only three days, but they find Pasha deep in the belly of the beast. Urban warfare has upended life in the city. Shells fly, tanks roam, citizens flee: the scenes Zhadan describes are those of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, recent years in Syria, or any number of other conflicts over the years. (American readers, unfamiliar with this type of warfare which they have basically never experienced on native soil, might particularly appreciate the raw descriptions here; most European readers will at least have heard from those who have had similar experiences, in the Second World War.)
       What is most striking is the dichotomy of what remains of normality and the complete absurdity of the widespread destruction. Life and death are a matter more of luck and coïncidence than anything else -- made most obvious when Pasha and his nephew first leave the boarding school, and then are forced to return, finding then, just hours later, a completely different scene. People flee their homes with their last possessions, despite the futility of the exercise; what does 'escape' even mean here, beyond at least clinging to life ? Pasha and his nephew have difficulty making it out of the city, and by the third day Pasha feels like he's just been going around in circles -- just like many of the local refugees:
Half of them have no homes. No relatives. So they're wandering along the edge of town, with no chance of escaping. They're walking in circles, walking around their city. And I'm walking with them, for some reason.
       It is January, and so conditions are harsh, too. There is snow, rain, cold. Much of the time things are shrouded in fog and darkness. Danger lurks everywhere -- mines, tanks, snipers -- and even lighting a cigarette lighter is dangerous, as any flicker of light immediately attracts military notice. And there's always the danger that one will be identified as being from the 'wrong' side .....
       Pasha's journey is life and death, and yet almost banal.. Any number of times, things could turn out badly, and he is extraordinarily lucky that they don't -- yet when all is said and done, it's just a blip in their lives:
     "Can someone forget all this ?" Pasha asks himself. "Of course they can," he answers his own question. "Of course. I'll forget all this," Pasha tells himself. "And the kid will, too."
       If this is testament to the enduring human spirit, Zhadan also seems to be suggesting that it is also part of the problem, that this mindless destruction and large-scale upheaval (for the stupidest of reasons, no less) is something that shouldn't be buried away by memory but rather be held up as an example so that mankind doesn't do it again; certainly, The Orphanage is meant, in part, to serve that purpose.
       Along the way, Pasha mentions wanting to find someone "when this is all over" -- only to be asked the obvious question:
     "What makes you think that all of this is going to end ?" she asks.
       The Orphanage is a naturalistic novel, and Zhadan too much of a realist to pretend that an 'end' might be in some sight. Nevertheless, his book tends towards the optimistic in its conclusion, not only in how things turn out. Narrated all along in the third person -- albeit often inside Pasha's thoughts -- the final pages switch to a first-person narration, nephew Sasha recounting the final stage of their odyssey -- still as focused on Pasha as before, but also extending beyond, to the possibilities of some future.
       Zhadan captures the grim war-torn city experience very well, especially from the perspective of the general population, and Pasha, trying to stay not so much above as beyond the fray -- and, of course, finding that to be impossible -- is well-used as the protagonist leading us through this morass.
       Much of The Orphanage covers very familiar, war-torn ground -- but in its basis in real-life conditions that are so close to us, in time and place, it serves well as a solid, all-too-close-for-comfort picture of how quickly societal collapse can ripple through even safe-seeming harbors, a reminder of how near such situations might be, to all of us.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 March 2021

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The Orphanage: Reviews: Other books by Serhiy Zhadan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan (Сергій Вікторович Жадан) was born in 1974.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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