Published by Algonquin Young Readers on March 24, 2015
Genres: contemporary, paranormal
Pages: 336 pages
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“Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me.”
The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.
We hear Amber’s story and Violet’s, and through them Orianna’s, first from one angle, then from another, until gradually we begin to get the whole picture—which is not necessarily the one that either Amber or Violet wants us to see.
Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.
I’m torn on this one, you guys. There were many things I liked about Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us: the prose style is gorgeous, and I was much more interested than I expected to be in a story about killer ballerinas. On the other hand, I saw the twists coming from a mile away (rare for me!), but dammit, I was still so interested in this book up until the last twenty-five pages or so.
The basic premise of The Walls Around Us: Amber’s in a juvenile detention center, Violet’s off to Julliard. These are our novel’s two narrators. Both their stories are bound together by their relationship to Ori – a promising young ballerina who is sent to the same juvenile detention center after allegedly murdering two rival ballerinas. As readers, we never get Ori’s story directly, but are asked to piece it together from Amber and Violet’s accounts. (This is a shame. Please give me Ori’s story rather than Violet’s next time, ok?) We have to evaluate both Amber and Violet’s stories: both full of lies, misdirections, and misremembered events. Who’s guilty? Who’s innocent?
This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though, because if you read this book for plot – to figure out what really happened the night of the murders, for instance – I suspect you’ll be disappointed. It’s fairly easy to figure out what really happened, and maybe it’s supposed to be. Both narrators are unreliable in predictable ways, so figuring out what each girl is hiding (whether consciously or not), felt relatively simple to me. This is to say: View Spoiler » It’s super obvious that Ori didn’t kill anyone and that Violet is the real murderer, who let her best friend take the fall for her. She makes this clear – to the audience, if not to herself – fairly early on. Same for Amber, same for the supernatural hijinks at the juvenile detention center. If you tell me they’re all really into eating this hallucinogenic plant that looks like jimson-weed, I’m going to be looking for some bodies on stage. (I grew up in the ’90s! Anxieties about angel’s trumpet poisoning abounded!) So, not terribly surprised to find out that everyone at Aurora Hill’s been dead all along, but weirdly, I didn’t care? « Hide Spoiler Despite this – despite my certainty that I knew how the plot was going to unfold – I still found The Walls Around Us to be incredibly hard to put down.
Part of this is Nova Ren Suma’s writing, which is almost impossibly lovely. For example, describing a night where the girls at the detention center are (almost) set free: “We were gasoline rushing for a lit match. We were bared teeth. Balled feet. A stampede of slick feet. We went wild, like anyone would. We lost our fool heads.” Another part is the mystery surrounding Aurora Hills, the juvenile detention center where Amber and Ori are locked up. Even though I was pretty sure I knew what was going on – see spoiler above for spoilery details – I couldn’t get enough.
When the book opens, the girls are all set free (seemingly, though they are eventually tracked down and herded back to their cells). Amber has the sense that all of this has happened already. She sees flashes of the juvenile detention center in the future, hears ghostly music in the hallways, and chases down a strange visitor who asks if she’s Ori. Amber realizes she knows who Ori is (and what her favorite book is, as Amber is the resident quasi-librarian), even though all of this precedes Ori’s arrival. So, immediately, I was really interested in the goings-on at Aurora Hills.
Amber’s narration was also the most interesting part of the novel for me in some ways. Sent to Aurora Hills, a youth detention center, for (allegedly) murdering her abusive step-father, the other girls are all convinced of her innocence. She’s set apart from them by this and other things, but narratively, Amber can’t separate herself from the other girls locked up at Aurora Hills. (Like so: “She was new, so she didn’t sense the connection. Didn’t know the rhythm of our feet in the corridors, how it felt to be in tune with them, two feet among so many. To look like everyone else, to wear what they were wearing, to eat what they were eating, to stand up and be counted when they were counted …”). It’s as if the community of the detention center is a living, breathing organism, and it turns Aurora Hills – and the group of girls imprisoned there – into a central character of the novel. (My feelings about this: yes yes yes, more of this, please.)
Violet’s story is much less interesting by comparison. She’s been in Ori’s shadow as a dancer all her life, is haunted by how she’s failed Ori – but is also smugly satisfied that she’s gotten away with it. She’s unlikeable, and while that isn’t a bad thing, it was disappointing to me to see it play out along such predictable lines (Violet is: an outsider, a person with enormous privilege, competitive with and jealous of other women, upset that Ori has a boyfriend and she doesn’t, YAWN). I understand what Violet’s story is doing – and her relationship with Ori becomes more interesting against the backdrop of Aurora Hills – but was still mostly bored by her.
The novel’s back cover copy promises “a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.” While this makes it sound as if our struggle as readers will be determining whether Amber, Violet, or Ori are guilty or innocent, in some ways, this is a less interesting question than what the novel actually asks. (So, this is to say, that, spoiler alert, it’s not hard to figure out who’s guilty or innocent. And do we do this? Yes we do.) View Spoiler » Ori is innocent! Violet is guilty. Ori is in a juvenile detention center! Violet is in Julliard. By the novel’s close, Violet gets murdered by ghosts and joins her ghost comrades at Aurora Hills; Ori’s off to Julliard. This might be a wish fulfillment and it does get wrapped up too neatly, but you know what, I’m not sad to read about someone who is marginalized and totally innocent getting avenged by her ghost-sistren. « Hide Spoiler
What The Walls Around Us does much more interestingly is to think about guilt and innocence on a social rather than an individual level. Rather than evaluating Ori or Violet’s guilt or innocence, and thinking about what it means for one to get mistaken for the other, the novel instead asks us to think about what it means to be guilty in a world where the odds are against you and you’ve been failed repeatedly by the structures and institutions that are supposed to protect you. Or what it means to be innocent, and what it means to be an individual at all in that world. We get this through Amber’s story. View Spoiler » She murders someone who’s been abusing her and her family members for years. She tells us she’s guilty, but what does that actually mean? What does it mean for her to be a part of a community of girls who have also been called guilty by a flawed system? Or is Amber guilty because she maybe-probably murders everyone at Aurora Hills when it seems like she might be set adrift in the world? « Hide Spoiler
tl;dr: If you want to read a book about murderous ballerinas, and teenage girls in juvy, give it a go. It didn’t work for me completely, but I still really enjoyed reading it for the most part. The writing bumps it up by a half star for sure.
So. Has anyone else read The Walls Around Us yet? Is anyone looking forward to its release?
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.