Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black

Walker. Aug. 2019. 320p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781536204377.
Gr 9 Up–Harry Black, a young firefighter in World War II–era Britain, is at odds with his family. Harry’s father is a weapons manufacturer. Disgusted by his family’s complicity, Harry registers as a conscientious objector. One fateful night, Harry is gravely injured in the blastback from a V2 rocket that hits a pub he has recently left—a pub where his beloved brother, Ellis, was lingering after the siblings argued. Harry, an artist and sensitive soul, had been journaling about this attempted reconciliation and after the V2 hits, this journal becomes a record of his laborious search for his brother, whom he believes has somehow survived the rocket’s devastating blow. Alternating between Harry’s drawing-laden journal entries and poems “sung” to the reader by Orpheus, storied psychopomp of Greek mythology, the novel’s theme is obvious from the jump: war is hell. Harry’s memories of his adventures, juxtaposed with Orpheus’s poetic renderings, create a dreamlike quality with a Pan’s Labyrinth–ian feel. The marriage of fantastical elements with the atrocities of war is not new, nor is World War II an unexplored literary topic, but this triptych treatment is interesting. The message could have been delivered with a lighter touch, but readers who enjoy their war stories steeped in philosophy will walk away satisfied.
VERDICT A recommended purchase. Hand to fans of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and even Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

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