Book Review: THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

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Notes on Diversity/Inclusion:

Not a lot here to speak of, honestly. The Walls Around Us is focused tightly on three characters–Amber, Ori, and Vee. Of the three, Ori does double duty representation. She is biracial, and she is poor.

There was a moment in the book that made me suspect that Amber could be read as queer, but it’s not canonical. There appears to be no actual canonical queer rep in the book, though Amber discusses, occasionally, that there are queer girls in the juvenile detention center where she lives.

There are vague depictions of mental health issues and disability in the sections in the juvenile detention center–the clearest example is the character of Kennedy who eats her own hair–but none of them are fleshed out into fully realized characters. Each of these characters is literally “this is a broken girl, and here is her mark of brokenness in this broken hellhole.”

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all the girls at Aurora Hills, aparently

It is an extremely unidimensional depiction of mental health, and given the complicated relationship between mental health, correctional facilities, and the way poverty intersects with all of that, it is a handling that is rife with issues. As in, if you are someone who is aware of these things it may or may not rub you the wrong way. If you are not someone who is aware of these things, it may play into your biases and reinforce ideas about how crazy people are dangerous. For this reason, I knocked a star off my overall rating.

Content Warnings:

  • violence, some gore
  • drugs used for escapism
  • some low-level creeping ableism in the Aurora Hills sections

Review:

Vee is the best ballerina in town and bound for Julliard, but she wasn’t always the best ballerina. Ori used to be the best ballerina, but that was long ago. That was before the murder of those two girls, before the trial, before she got sent to Aurora Hills Detention Center. Before she died. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is about Vee and about Ori, but mostly it’s about Amber–Ori’s roommate during her brief stay at Aurora Hills.

The novel jumps back and forth between Vee and Amber’s perspectives. Vee tells a story about her history of dance and her relationship to the Ori-that-was. Amber, the real heart of the book, tells an altogether different story. Serving as the voice for all forty-two girls detained at the Aurora Hills facility, Amber tells her story of regret and lost future as a way of explaining all forty-two lost futures.

But Amber, while trying to tell her story and the story for her forty-one companions, is a confused character. She spends as much time in her narration trying to uncover what is happening to her as she does explicating things for the reader, which is actually quite exciting to read. Aurora Hills becomes a site of uncanny intrigue–at once horrifying for what it is and what it will be, and like Amber, it is unsettling for the reader to be so unsteady in time and place.

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Me and Amber through like 60% of the book

Suma constructs a complicated narrative, and does so beautifully. Threaded through a narrative about professional jealousy and the people we cast aside are also near constant allusions to Macbeth. Vee sometimes thinks she still has blood on her face. The color red is evocative and pervasive. There’s even a feast, and ghosts at the feast.* At one point, hallucinatory vines reclaim the walls of Aurora Hills and all I could think was Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.

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plants are creepy

The biggest weakness of the book (aside from the lurking ableism that ate at me) was Ori. She is ultimately to perfect a character to have any real depth. Neither her relationship to Vee or her relationship to Amber gives her any depth, and she never has any POV scenes of her own. Vee and Ori’s story is one of jealousy and isolation: Ori is the natural, the one with god-given talent, even though Vee is the one who wants so badly to be the ballerina. It’s a story that’s been told before, and it brings nothing new to the table. Vee shrinks in Ori’s shadow, and Ori dulls herself for Vee’s sake.

Ori and Amber’s story is one of small kindnesses in harsh places. Amber takes Ori under her wing, and falls a little bit in love with her. It is ultimately because of Ori that Amber makes the final choices she does, though why exactly this girl has moved her so is unclear since this girl’s personality remains unclear throughout the book. She is a sweet and empty enigma. The threat she is to Vee is clear, but the salvation she represents to Amber never crystallizes.

Takeaway & Rating:

This is a fascinating and beautifully written book with a steely heart of vengeance written into every page. I loved it, but as someone with mental health issues I felt othered by it at the same time. Be careful with this one–check it out if you’re interested in murderous ballerinas and patient girls with angry hearts, but know this book might not love you back.

3stars
*Fun questions for your book club that you didn’t ask for! Who is Banquo? Who is Duncan? Does it matter???