Orchid Child is a partly historical, partly mystical novel set primarily in small-town Ireland.
In the early 2000s, Kate, a smart neuroscientist fleeing the disgrace of her affair with a married colleague, ends up in West Ireland with her 15-year-old nephew Teague, to help conduct a study on the high levels of schizophrenia there. Teague, a troubled teenager who hears voices, learns that his illness stems from “second sight,” which allows him to see the future and hear the spirits of his ancestors. Alternate chapters tell the story of Kate’s grandparents, who also had second sight and had to flee their Irish home in the 1920s for New York.
The novel captures Kate’s insecurities as she tries to salvage her career and deal with Teague, the son of her deceased sister, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her coping mechanisms are counter-productive; for example, she sleeps with a graduate student after she faces hostility from a study participant’s family. Meanwhile, Teague suffers terribly from his mental illness, breaking into a house to flee an imaginary dog or getting glimpses of a future accident.
Stability comes from Ryan Quinn, head of Kate’s study, who helps guide Kate and Teague in the ways of small-town Irish life. He radiates calm and coolness, even when an anti-therapy activist group hacks the study’s computers and threatens to publish the participants’ identifying information.
The “second sight” aspect of the story is revealed skillfully, with Teague discovering it through his friendship with a practicing Druid. Readers learn more about this ability through the chapters with Kate’s grandparents.
The novel is generally well paced, although towards the end some events are spoken of that perhaps could have been better shown. And there’s a dramatic, violent event that feels out of place from the rest of the book.
Still, the story offers intriguingly flawed characters and an unusual take on mental illness that should appeal to many readers.
Also available as an ebook.