Victoria Costello Orchid Child

Victoria Costello – Orchid Child, a review

Orchid Child is Victoria Costello’s debut novel. The story is set in New York and Ballymore, a small Irish town. Not only does the story take place in two different places, it also moves between two time zones as well. The enormous physical and temporal gaps are bridged by the connection the characters share with each other. The main theme of the novel is family, heritage and the way personal experiences affect the perception and life experiences of generations to come. The story is about Kate Callahan, a neuroscientist and her nephew Teague who move to West Ireland where they both start on a journey of self-discovery despite facing many challenges along the way.

The plot keeps thickening for about three quarters of the novel, keeping the reader on their toes, always involved, always interested. The family ties the characters share with one another are sometimes hard to follow but that just makes the whole story that much more interesting. The ending, however, feels a little rushed. I appreciate the fact that Costello did not leave any questions unanswered, but it just feels like there were too many happy endings stuffed into a handful of pages. Without giving away too much about the story, I have to say that Liam’s character and the others’ relationship towards him at the end of the novel left me a bit baffled, because I felt like the journey to forgiveness was not explored thoroughly. As far as the resolution to many conflicts between the protagonists in the novel goes, I feel like they should have been more thoroughly investigated (Kate and Finn, for example). 

Victoria Costello’s Orchid Child draws upon ancient Cletic mysticism and skillfully incorporates the magical into the real. The druids, fairies and people with ‘second sight’ give the almost black and white reality of the troubled history of Ireland a colourful aura, a buoyant atmosphere where stories come to life and give hope to the hopeless. Going through Irish history starting from the war of independence through The Troubles to the aftermath of all these rebellions and fights for an independent state is just so heartbreaking and depressing. Instead of presenting the Callahan family’s involvement in all of the aforementioned events matter-of-factly and exploring the effects these might have had on family ties and individual personalities, Costello spices the story up with a little bit of the fantastic. Her attempt at dissecting mental illness follows the same pattern. Instead of adapting a very clinical and sterile attitude towards schizophrenia, she presents people suffering from this illness as valid, important and constructive members of society who have a sensitivity to perceive different realities.

Orchid Child tackles the idea that mental illness is not something to be afraid of, but something that can – if managed with love and attention – be integrated into a person’s life, in some cases even adding value to it. Teague is presented at first as a young boy with  “schizoaffective disorder with audio hallucinations and paranoid tendences”. His aunt, Kate, wants to push this side of him to the background, not acknowledging its presence. As she learns more and more about her own genealogy, she begins to understand that in order for her orchid child, Teague, to thrive, she needs to accept that he is different, and she even has to learn to embrace his “gift”. Even though in the novel schizophrenia is closely tied with what the Irish call ‘second sight’, the idea that it should be tackled with love is very interesting. Costello draws upon a study titled The Irish Study of High-Density Schizophrenia Families to underline the main idea in the novel, namely that the talent of ‘second sight’ is carried by a genetic marker and can be inherited.

“What if the rocks in the wall held on to the voices and pictures of what happened here the same way silicon chips store data? Silicon comes from quartz crystals and, duh, quartz is a rock.”

What starts out as a very science-based, reality-oriented novel, later turns into a beautifully woven almost fairy tale about love, forgiveness and the importance of honouring family and one’s roots. In this respect, the novel is very “Irish” indeed, since it continues the tradition of story-telling. Another element that I found very typical of the Irish way of thinking was this idea that land (the soil itself) has memory and it is almost inseparable from the people inhabiting it. Considering the importance given to land in Irish literature, Victoria Costello’s Orchid Child follows this tradition beautifully, honouring not only her ancestors, but also the land itself that gave life to her own family.

“Their actions should have been enough for Ellen to part ways with the Republican cause forever. But she was no fool. She blamed the English for twelve hundred years of subjugation of her people and for turning brother against brother. She’d never pledged her allegiance to any particular army or political party. Her loyalty belonged to the land and her ancestors buried there.”

All in all, the novel was super fast paced and interesting with many unexpected turns of events. The only thing, really, that I found lacking was the fact that some of the characters were not developed well enough, in my opinion. Teague, for example, was mostly characterized by his mental illness and there were very few instances where some of his other character traits were brought to light. He is the orchid child, the child who, despite being very sensitive to the stressors in his environment, is able to thrive if given enough love and attention. This is why I feel like I would have loved to learn even more about him and his other relationships (with his mother, father and grandmother, to name a few).

“He’s her precious orchid child, doing what orchids do when they’re under extreme stress. They withdraw and get lost in mazes of their own making. As a certifiable dandelion, she let her assumption that anybody can and should be able to bounce back from life’s hard knocks obscure what she knows to be true. For Teague, the jury is still out. Like any orchid his age, he can still go either way. Now is what matters. Not the past.”

“Brigid told me there’s just one or two of us in each bloodline given the strength to extract the life force from such terrible sorrows and help the others carry on. When a special soul comes to us, we’re meant to recognize the gift in that child or husband and give them what they need to let the gift take hold.”

The juxtaposition of orchid child (Teague) and dandelion child (Kate) is further evidenced in the way Kate and Teague acclimate to their new surroundings. According to the study, under the right circumstances orchids do much better than dandelions, an idea that is ever so present in the novel: Teague quickly finds his place amongst his new friends (a sort of family of misfits), while Kate struggles to find common ground with the locals.

“Yews have been known to live five thousand years. This one could be that old. When the original trunk reaches a ripe old age, it decays inside, and a new one grows in its place. It’s constantly sprouting new trunks and branches. Some reach up for sun, but others go down into the soil and link up with their brethren underground (…) The yew reminds us that death is an illusion.”

This ⬆️, I think, is my favourite quote from the novel. I love how Costello compares the yew to a family, even if it is an obvious comparison. The last sentences reinforce the importance of belonging to a certain place, to a certain people. Even if you reach for the sun, you are still connected to the whole. And even in death there is a sense of continuity and peacefulness.

My Rating

I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I really enjoyed reading Victoria Costello’s Orchid Child and so I’d give it a Four Fox rating. 🦊🦊🦊🦊

Discussion Points

I didn’t talk about the idea of motherhood in my review, even though it is an important one in the novel. At one point, Kate mentions that her mother never really wanted to become a mother and she herself hadn’t imagined becoming one either. How do you think this influences her relationship with her nephew, Teague?

What did you think about the novel having two story-lines? How do you think it served the story as a whole?

The women in the Callahan-Mitchell family have an important role, even if it isn’t necessarily very obvious. Kate is supposed to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps in her attitude towards Teague and his gift. How do you think she compares to the wise old lady who managed to keep the family together?

Lastly, there are so many thought-provoking ideas in the novel, but let’s stick to this one for now: 

“…unless people pay attention, they never existed, and their suffering was for nothing.”

How do you think this quote connects to the story as a whole?

As always, thank you for reading my review of Orchid Child by Victoria Costello! 💙

To read some of my other book reviews, visit my Book Club page!

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