Orphan #8

Written by Kim van Alkemade
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

The tale of how medical experiments were performed upon orphans during the 1920s is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, particularly as the underlying facts are grounded in truth. The narrative weaves back and forth in time, with Rachel Rabinowitz telling her current story in the first person, while in the third person, the reader learns about Rachel as a young girl.

After a tragic event, Rachel and her brother are sent to a Jewish orphanage on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1919, when she is only about four years old. Desperate for love and a maternal figure, Rachel clings to any attention she can get. It comes in the form of Dr. Mildred Solomon, who wants to contribute to medical science by experimenting with X-rays. As Rachel has no parents who need to signal their consent, she becomes a convenient subject.

As an adult several decades later, Rachel is convinced that she has ill effects as a direct result of the radiation exposure. In a twist of fate, the doctor who performed life-altering experiments on Rachel is now dying, and Rachel, now a nurse, is charged with her care. That scenario sets up an incredible conflict within Rachel’s psyche.

This book is utterly unputdownable. At once atmospheric, disturbing and absolutely engrossing, it poses a host of moral questions; I fully anticipate that it will become popular with book clubs.