“It’s 1663 in the tiny, hardscrabble Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now present-day southern Manhattan. Orphan children are going missing, and among those looking into the mysterious state of affairs are a quick-witted twenty-two-year-old trader, Blandine von Couvering, herself an orphan, and a dashing British spy named Edward Drummond.
Suspects abound, including the governor’s wealthy nephew, a green-eyed aristocrat with decadent tastes; an Algonquin trapper who may be possessed by a demon that turns people into cannibals; and the colony’s own corrupt and conflicted orphanmaster. Both the search for the killer and Edward and Blandine’s newfound romance are endangered, however, when Blandine is accused of being a witch and Edward is sentenced to hang for espionage. Meanwhile, war looms as the English king plans to wrest control of the colony.”
Thoughts: “The more things change, the more things stay the same” seems to be the main theme behind Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster with its focus on political intrigue, ambition, and human depravity. Set in New Amsterdam, the story follows Blandine van Couvering, a female merchant who is way ahead of her time in her deportment, profession, and beliefs, and Edward Drummond, an English spy with an insidious past. Along with a handful of friends and allies, all of whom exist on the fringes of society, they race to discover the truth behind brutal murders that are petrifying the settlement. What follows is a jagged, somewhat confusing historical serial murder mystery.
There are several issues with The Orphanmaster that will prevent a reader from thoroughly enjoying it. The biggest concern is the uneven pacing of the story. Throughout the novel, the story pushes forward in spurts and starts. Certain scenes require frantic reading, and others are so slow that a reader will be hard-pressed to keep reading. The slow sections outnumber the exciting or interesting passages, especially in the beginning. In fact, it takes approximately 100 pages or more before it begins to pick up the pace or even make sense. Various subplots also progress unevenly. Edward and Blandine’s burgeoning relationship is one that proceeds at breakneck, almost unrealistic speed, while the murder mystery plods along well after a reader has deduced the guilty parties. The entire story would benefit from more even pacing.
Normally, a novel set in an unfamiliar place and time while using an unfamiliar language or vocabulary is a challenging but still manageable read. What unnecessarily complicates The Orphanmaster is the constant narrator changes and the fact that at least two of the narrators are mentally ill. Switching narrators within a novel is a great way to round out a story, allowing readers more intimacy within the story with multiple first-person narratives. However, when the switches occur haphazardly, a reader struggles to follow the story as it progresses. The change in point of view is too abrupt, and one’s utter absorption in the novel is disturbed by the need to stop reading in order to remember where this particular narrator’s story last paused. What makes following the narrative in The Orphanmaster even more difficult is the fact that at least two of the narrators are very sick. A reader is not only left struggling to follow the story after a narrator change-up but also trying to discern meaning and understanding behind the cryptic statements and visions made by a narrator who may or may not be hallucinating and/or delirious. After a while, a reader will adjust to the various narrator voices, but as with the pacing, it does take time and more than a few pages to feel comfortable.
Where The Orphanmaster excels is in the details, not only of the characters and their actions but also the historical elements. Ms. Zimmerman does a fantastic job using actual historical documents to provide the reader with an accurate understanding of life in New Amsterdam. She even pinpoints fact from fiction in her Author’s Note at the end of the novel, allowing a reader to appreciate her careful and thorough research. She applies the same thoroughness when describing a scene or character. In fact, hers is a no-holds-barred approach as she details the most private of functions or most horrific crimes against humanity. It is not a novel to be read while eating. At the same time, a reader can appreciate the fact that Ms. Zimmerman is not afraid to detail even the more grotesque elements of being a human as it just confirms the brutality of early America and her commitment to accurate storytelling.
The Orphanmaster is one novel that has been generating a lot of pre-read buzz, something that typically creates high expectations for readers. Unfortunately, it is not going to be able to merit those high expectations, and most readers will finish the novel disappointed, if they finish it at all. While The Orphanmaster is not necessarily buzz-worthy, it is not a horrible historical novel in spite of its problems. Yes, for a novel that is so careful about its attention to detail, Edward and Blandine’s relationship sticks out as unrealistic, and a reader will struggle adjusting to the uneven pacing and constant shifts in narrator. Nevertheless, for its glimpse into life of this doomed colony, it is unparalleled. Perhaps not the book of the summer, The Orphanmaster will still intrigue those readers who can overlook its faults and appreciate the story.