The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan Review – A Resonant and Timeless Fragment of Ukraine’s Plight

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The thing with wars is that you can never be prepared for them, and reading about them never captures the feeling of being there in these distressing moments. Only a few writers can capture the shocking feeling of having your life turned upside down as Serhiy Zhadan does in his masterpiece: The Orphanage. And more than just picking this novel for its unique literary approach and prose, we felt it was a very important reading for spreading the truth about not just the Ukrainian war situation, but the reality of war in general.

The deaths of Human Beings may seem like fiction for us, who may be living on the other corner of the world, and only learning about the bits and pieces through the news outlets. It may never hit us unless it’s about someone close and familiar. That’s why the choice of the main driving theme is very important and in the Orphanage, it hits the mark. The main story is about Pasha, an Ukranian teacher who sets out on a journey to save his nephew Sasha from an occupied territory during the Russo-Ukrainian War while going through various hardships and immense life-changing experiences along the way.

The Story

The story is told over the course of three days, and one would be really surprised by how much can happen in one day of war. In the First Day (or the first third) of the novel, the reader is exposed to so many sensory information related to the enduring daily hardships of the Ukrainians living in these times. The prose is not intended to beautify the details or make them more realistic, but to induce a sense of hopelessness and dread through the continuous exposure to an abundance of factors that will make flipping each page will feel like a personal attack with a sharp knife on your mental integrity, only possible through the eyes of someone who really lived in this reality.

It is not just a war of attrition and destruction, but you can see the conflict in the people’s faces and their irrational reactions, or the lack of them, like they are battling to find their own convictions and reasons for living after witnessing so much war. The protagonist is more of a feeler than a thinker, and he notices every little thing, and even he is constantly getting surprised by how much he can see and realize about other people over the course of the story, like finding out that a school teacher just doesn’t know how to cry, and doesn’t know how to laugh either. She just doesn’t know how it’s done, and even her tears are fake. Pasha doesn’t think like this, it hits him as written that this is the reality, he never could take a single break, and neither could the reader.

The Second Day

The second day provides more intimacy to the situations, which all feel like half-written or half-answered, simply because that’s how things are. People don’t have time to think, or don’t even know what they should be thinking about. It’s like the descent of a new dogma that electrifies the air. Everyone is suddenly talking about different things and doing abnormal habits, and nothing can be fixed. The protagonist asks more questions than there are answers, about the sources of calm and fear, about the effect of the rare moments of sunlight amidst the darkness. You are constantly looking with him for a safe place, in the heart and soul of things, whereas logic and reason have abandoned all that’s left of humanity.

This day also includes an amazing debate on how we perceive these events as outsiders, and how we are quick to blame one another while we have no idea what is fighting for whom and on what grounds, or what’s going on in their heads. The geopolitical situation also plays a great and important role in shaping the priorities of the citizens and the reality of the situation. Every page is shocking from a perspective you would have never thought about, and it never ever holds your hands through all of this. Everything just crumbles down on you at the same time, and for everyone.

The Third Day

I won’t spoil the third day in my writing, but it has an amazing and perfect culmination to everything that has been discussed, but for the Ukrainians, nothing really ends. For them, it’s just three days of their lives, and in reality, their hell keeps living for god knows how long. There are many reasons for which people would choose to read, and many things I would refrain from talking about unless they are experienced from the author’s point of view, but all I could say is this:

It is not the state that makes the person, but the opposite, only when there are people can there be a nation. Thus it’s very important, to listen, not only to news channels and history documentaries but to the voices of people who are living and breathing. The worst case is not the destruction of the nation, but the loss of the proud human beings who can live and inspire and rebuild. The Orphanage holds the perfect message we all need right now.

You can buy The Orphanage on Kindle or Paperback from here: The Orphanage on Amazon.

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