The Walls Around Us: Review

February 18, 2015 2015, 3.5 star books, contemporary, creepy, ghosts, Layla, nova ren suma 18 ★★★½

The Walls Around Us: ReviewThe Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on March 24, 2015
Genres: contemporary, paranormal
Pages: 336 pages
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
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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 » 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 »

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 »

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?

layla signature teal

An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

Further Reading:

Wendy’s Imaginary Girls review
Wendy’s 17 & Gone review



18 Responses to “The Walls Around Us: Review”

  1. Katie @ Bookish Illuminations

    I am actually reading an e-ARC of this now, and I’m about 100 pages from the end. I am really wondering about the twist in this story I think is coming, and so far I’m intrigued. The magical realism is definitely a refreshing aspect because I don’t see a lot of magical realism anymore in most of the YA I read. Then again, maybe I’m just not looking in the right places!

    I didn’t read all of the comments for this post in case there are any spoilers–I’m wanting to be extra careful, but I expect I will finish this tomorrow morning….so far I have been hooked so we’ll see what I think when I finish…it’s definitely got some creepy parts!
    Katie @ Bookish Illuminations recently posted…Bookish Illumination: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2015) by Rachel Joyce

  2. Pili @ In Love With Handmade

    I have the book for review, even if it’s in PDF and it annoys me that I cannot get it directly to my Kindle. I’m quite intrigued about it, even more after reading your review, I love unreliable narrators even if it sucks that it’s too easy to see them coming, and I have a real soft spot for ballet stories given how I took a few years of ballet when I was a preteen/teen!
    Fantastic review Lailah!!
    Pili @ In Love With Handmade recently posted…Saturday Pages: Written in Red by Anne Bishop!!!

    • Layla

      Um, lots of things you might like then, here! Unreliable narrators are the only kind of narrator this book has – and yeah, even if they were predictable to me doesn’t mean that (1) it wasn’t still super interesting and (2) that others will find them predictable. The writing is lovely and surprising enough to make the book … not at all predictable, I think. And also! If you like ballet, you might like it even more! I don’t have a soft spot for ballet stories (I was strictly a tap-dancer and that only!) but I still liked it. :)

      Yeah, the file was difficult to open for me. It was one of the ones from NetGalley that wouldn’t go to my Kindle but did open with BlueFire, so. Maybe an option?
      Layla recently posted…The Mime Order: Review

  3. Amanda

    I was thinking about starting this one this weekend and I think you’ve convinced me. I need something that will suck me in because I’m not obsessed with my current read.

    PS-Have you started Invasion of the Tearling yet? I’m afraid to read it.
    Amanda recently posted…Review: Into Thin Air 2015 TBR Challenge

    • Layla

      You should start it! I found it incredibly difficult to put down. It totally sucked me in. Your mileage may vary, though. It’s very different from Tearling, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts (even if you totally hate it, let me knowwwww). I know too few people who have read this book.

      NO. SAME. (I have such high expectations for it that I can’t touch it, which is a problem I have with books I’ve really been looking forward to. It’s just impossible.)
      Layla recently posted…The Mime Order: Review

  4. Sarah J.

    I couldn’t agree more with this review. You summed up so many problems I had with TWAU in a much more eloquent way then I had. I had the intention of writing a long post detailing all my thoughts and agreements with your review, but for some reason I have completely forgot almost all of what I had wanted to say. I really like what you brought up with the guilt theme and what this novel is posing questions for. While this novel is predictable I find myself still loving it because Suma is hard not to love.
    Sarah J. recently posted…An Intro into Graphic Novels

    • Layla

      Her writing is so beautiful. I do think I’d like anything she wrote. (And I don’t mind predictable either, in part because I’m so bad at spotting stuff like that.) Um, if you remember what you thought about the book, I’d love to hear it! If you ever get around to writing it up.

      Yeah, I mean, the question of guilt in the book is pretty interesting (especially with Amber, especially with the book’s conclusion – how each girl is waiting for someone to potentially come along and take their place, maybe).
      Layla recently posted…The Mime Order: Review

      • Sarah J.

        I hope you give her a shot! Her writing style is rather lovely, but my favorite novel from so far remains to be her debut, Imaginary Girls, which isn’t all that predictable because there isn’t much of a plot. If you wouldn’t mind reading my review (I linked it as my most recent post) we can find something to discuss! For some reason I just can’t think clearly and maybe we can start talking and then it’ll come to me.:)
        Sarah J. recently posted…The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

  5. Shannon

    I also really liked Amber’s narrative. I think her inability to separate herself from the other inmates was a large part of what made her story strong. She believes in a completely devoted community, and that’s also what makes the ending so “haunting,” at least for me.

    But it’s also super psychological when it comes down to Amber’s construction of her identity, and I think she’s similar to Vee in that way – they’re both unreliable narrators with repressive tendencies.
    Shannon recently posted…The Mime Order (Bone Season #2) by Samantha Shannon

    • Layla

      Oh yeah, I totally agree. All of the stuff about how they’re only 41 and looking for a 42nd member to be complete! It’s what was most interesting about her narrative to me – the ways in which it wasn’t a narrator who thought of herself as an individual, but as inextricably part of a community. Wonderful and yes, haunting, especially when you consider the consequences of it.
      Layla recently posted…The Mime Order: Review

  6. Carina Olsen

    Gorgeous review Layla. <3 I'm so glad you enjoyed this book :D Even though you had some issues with it. Hmph. I loved it so so much, hih :) I didn't guess all the things right away, but yeah, some things were obvious :) Yet I loved it so so so much. I just loved everything about this book. Sigh. It's so creepy. And sad. So sad. Yet beautiful and amazing too :) Thank you for sharing your thoughts sweetie. <3
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday #175

    • Layla

      Thanks, Carina. Yeah, I really enjoyed reading this. It was un-put-down-able, at least until aaaaalmost at the very end. I wasn’t even really bothered by the plot twists that were obvious? The experience of reading the book was excellent enough for me to not really care about stuff like that.

      The book does creepiness really, really well. Everything about Amber’s narration, I loved.

      Layla recently posted…The Walls Around Us: Review

  7. Wendy Darling

    I love, love, love Nova Ren Suma’s writing so I will definitely be reading this! I have noted the guessable twists, but that doesn’t bother me so much if I enjoy the characters and writing, which I’m sure I will. I’m glad you liked the book overall, despite a few quibbles. C’mon, MURDEROUS BALLERINAS. That’s basically all the jacket copy had to say. Putting NRS’s name on it is the cherry on top.

    • Layla

      I think you’ll dig the writing if you have already read her before. :) (I would like to say that her writing is everything I think E. Lockhart’s wanted to be in We Were Liars, but that’s just my feel. It’s spare and poetic in a way that totally works.)

      Murderous ballerinas! And I generally don’t care about ballet. To be honest, though, killer ballerinas are cool and all, but they were by far the least interesting part of the book to me. (And maybe could have been interesting w/ more from Ori’s character and less from Violet’s, but I’m still trying to think about that decision which I’m sure was made for good reasons and will be clear to me in good time. :))

      Would read something by her again, that’s for sure. She could write a retelling of the phone book and I’d want to read it.
      Layla recently posted…The Walls Around Us: Review

  8. Nikki

    The premise sounds so interesting but I really have a hard time with predictable literature. Especially when it involves a “murder mystery”.

    • Layla

      Oh, read it anyway! The murder mystery isn’t really a mystery? and while the plot is predictable, the telling of it is not. The language is beautiful and surprising. I think it’s certainly worth a read.
      Layla recently posted…The Walls Around Us: Review

    • Layla

      Yeah, I mean, this didn’t bother me overly much because while plot (and plotting) is important, it’s not one of the things I most care about as a reader? And because the writing and character development in this were so lovely, I didn’t really mind that I knew what was going to happen. (I was disappointed a bit in Violet’s storyline – which was to my mind much less interesting and less complex than Amber’s – but I feel like there might be something to this that I haven’t thought through quite yet.) Anyway, I’d recommend it if you’re at all interested in it.
      Layla recently posted…The Walls Around Us: Review