Book Review: The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma

Here’s why you should read The Walls Around UsIt’s fantastic. This baby is among my serious top contenders for best books of 2015 — seriously, one of these years I will get around to actually making a list of top books for the year. It’s dark, it’s spooky, it’s complicated, and it’s a sharp, intense look at the heart of the best of what young adult can be. When people say that young adult can’t include literary fiction or in-depth character studies, I want to beat them over the head with books like this one, because, basically, those people are wrong.

With one foot en pointe in the highly competitive, intense, ferocious world of classical ballet and the other slippered foot dragging through the hallways of a juvenile detention centre, this is a book that really nails parallel narrative technique. Like Suma’s other books, it’s super dark and complicated, but filled with beautiful language, so exquisite that at times you miss the fact that it’s describing and delving into horrible, dirty, awful, disgusting things. It’s like seeing a really gorgeous flower in a meadow and running to look at it, bending down to smell it, and then realizing that you just waded through a field of asps. And then you’re not sure how to get back out again. That is what this book is about.

Ori and Violet were best friends. Until something terrible happened. Their stories wrap tightly around each other like the vines on the cover of this book — vines that will become important in more ways than one as you fall deeper and deeper into the narrative. Violet comes from a wealthy family and grows up with every imaginable possible privilege, while Ori does not. When Violet enters ballet at a young age, she does so with the support of her family and every possible thing she might need. Ori has to fight at every step of the way.

Ori is also the more talented dancer, but she’s an intensely loyal friend, and she sticks with Violet, even putting her friend’s chances at success above her own. But then, the darkness behind the stage door upends their lives, and this is where their stories truly begin to split. Through bits and pieces, we assemble their story and come to understand not just what happened, but the truth of it, in a narrative told through the eyes of Amber, a young girl detained upstate, and Violet, wracked by guilt as her graduation and success as a dancer seem like foregone conclusions.

This is not an easy book to read — it’s a squirmy, wild, unsettling story. That’s what makes it so good. On the surface, it covers many subjects true to growing up, things many of us can recall from our youth and things we all struggled with. The girls tackle friendship and what it’s like to have a tremendous class and culture divide, something that rang acutely true for me because it described many childhood friendships of my own. The distinction between Violet’s privilege and Ori’s life isn’t just true to life for some readers, it’s also a commentary on larger divides in society; this is not about ‘rich girl’ and ‘underprivileged youth’ but about something more complicated.

It’s a book about sexuality and growing up, but also about deciding what kind of person you want to become. As Violet tells her story, she starts to shift in the eyes of the reader, and not necessarily in a good way. The rosy, confident, assertive story she tells at the start flickers and wavers, and you start to wonder who she really is, and if she really deserves the things that have been handed to her. (Does anyone, really?) First she tells us she’s worked hard to earn everything that she has at her fingertips — but it becomes apparent very quickly that this is not necessarily the truth, and it’s a stark commentary on how Violet tells her story, but also how we tell her own.

‘You were born on third base,’ Jake says in Jericho when he’s talking to his brother. ‘Stop pretending you hit a triple.’ Violet, born on third base, doesn’t just want to convince the reader that she hit a triple — much of the book is about trying to convince herself. Her story, and its bitter conclusion, suggest otherwise, though. This is a rare case in which the wronged do get justice, and the privileged girl does get her comeuppance at the end, which, I freely confess, made me smile. In a world where everything seems wrong sometimes and people are able to get whatever they want at a fingertip, every now and then, I like to see the downtrodden win.

Amber’s narrative is also fascinating and important. You spend much of the book wondering who she is, what connection she has to the characters, why she’s important at all — and it isn’t until the very end that you suddenly comprehend and like a rushing gust she’s whipping through Violet and Ori’s lives, leaving them and us reeling in her wake. She’s a brilliant, complex, intensely and fiercely alive character, so realised and true to herself that her narrative is at times naked, and at others eerily and deliberately closed off.

Whether you’re in a ballet studio watching Violet painstakingly try to nail a routine, or the grim hallways of a correctional institution, The Walls Around Us puts the reader in a series of worlds surrounded by walls within walls within walls — and only at the very end do you realise which walls really lay where. The Walls Around Us is a maze of characters and narratives that only explodes intensely in your face after the fact — when I finished, I immediately had to pick it up again and re-read, picking through each scene to see the things that I had missed. This is my favourite sort of story, a one told sideways and whichways, one that forces the reader to reimagine in order to understand.