Knyzhka Corner Book Review: Orphanage 41 by Victor Malarek

In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we look at Orphanage 41 by Victor Malarek.

Although Victor Malarek has written six non-fiction books, Orphanage 41 is his first novel.

Mykola Yashan, the 19-year old protagonist of this novel, is forced into a voyage of nightmarish self-discovery. After the sudden death of his parents in an automobile crash, his entire world falls apart, “Because everything I’ve been told, all I’ve ever known, has turned out to be a big lie.” (p. 48)

Mykola leads a very sheltered life. He is a third year student in civil engineering at the University of Alberta. As an only child, he is the “centre of his mother’s universe,” (p. 12), but he has a very complicated relationship with his father, Dr. Stepan Yashan, “a respected scholar in the expat Ukrainian community.” Mykola cannot understand why his father resents him so much. After his parents’ death, Mykola discovers a shocking secret. He was adopted from an orphanage in Ukraine. This discovery forces him to start a search for answers about his past.

Mykola begins his search with his 1993 adoption papers signed by Natalka Matlinsky, director of Orphanage 41 in Lviv. As Mykola begins to follow the threads of his mysterious adoption, he gets caught up in a world of shocking realities. While visiting Orphanage 41, he discovers that the money and gifts given to orphans by well-wishing Ukrainian tourists never get to the impoverished children. In fact, the orphans live in squalor while director Matlinsky drives a BMW and lives in a luxurious apartment. Mykola discovers an adoption scam that has connections to the highest levels of Ukrainian government.

Mykola’s search also reveals the truth about his birth mother, Kataryna Chumak. Forced into sexual slavery at an early age, she was rejected by her own family when she escaped. Where was she now? What did she know about her son’s birth?

Malarek explores some very important social issues in his novel Orphanage 41. He deals with the realities of human trafficking, the complex issues of adoption in a foreign country, and the plight of both male and female orphans once they leave Ukrainian orphanages. These social issues have been addressed in other forums, but they are particularly poignant and shocking in the context of this novel.

This is Victor Malarek’s first novel, and it is his first self-published work. His main character is well developed. Mykola Yashan is courageous and intelligent. Readers will definitely be able to relate to his experiences as a young Ukrainian Canadian, and his desire to find out about his roots. “She spoke only Ukrainian to him at home and signed him up for Saturday school where he learned to read and write the language.” (p. 12)

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Malarek’s skill as an investigative reporter is obvious in the lengthy passages about important historical issues such as the massacre of the kobzari on December 4, 1933 in Kharkiv. Although some of this information is important to the narrative, these information passages could have been shortened in order to make the narrative flow more smoothly. The novel could have profited from more rigorous editing.

Victor Malarek is an award winning journalist who is currently the senior investigative reporter on CTV’s current affairs program W5. Born in Lachine, Quebec, he began his career in journalism as a copy boy at the Weekend Magazine in Montreal in 1968. Since then, he has worked as a reporter, investigations editor for The Globe and Mail, and co-host of the fifth estate on CBC from 1990-2000.

He has written six non-fiction titles including The Johns – Sex for Sale and the Men who Buy It (2009), and The Natashas – Inside the New Global Sex Trade (2003). His first book, Hey … Malarek! (1984) documented his turbulent youth and was made into a feature film. Orphanage 41 is his first novel.

Readers should definitely look forward to new novels by Victor Malarek!

 – Review written and narrated by Myra Junyk.



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