The Story: The Walls Around Us, a stand-alone novel by Nova Ren Suma, is a split-narrative focused on two young girls, Amber and Violet, who exist in two very different social circles. Amber is locked up in a juvenile detention center for committing a heinous crime, and Violet, a ballet dancer, is a prisoner in her own mind. Both girls’ stories are eventually connected to Orianna, a young lady with whom is attached a dark, terrible secret. When all three girls’ lives finally collide, hidden parts of their pasts come back to either set them free or imprison them from within.
My Take: Normally, it takes quite a bit of intrigue to get me to read a general fiction book (as I’m more of a sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal gal). So when I read the plot summary for this novel, I decided to give it a try as it’s definitely outside of my usual reads.
Plot-wise, The Walls Around Us follows two young girls, Amber and Violet, both of whom come from different backgrounds yet are brought together through their various associations with the enigmatic Orianna. While for now I’ll avoid sharing spoilers, I feel that it’s okay to say that Ori (as she’s later known) brings Amber and Violet’s lives together in a rather twisted and unexpected way. It’s not a happy ending, though I believe the conclusion certainly fits the nature of the novel itself.
I found myself seriously split on this book as I certainly think it has some very strong elements in its favor yet there were plot holes that I just couldn’t reconcile. (Granted, this was my first time reading this book, so it’s possible these “holes” were just me skimming over something in passing.)
For starters, I enjoyed the structure of the book. Normally, split narratives seem to bounce back and forth between speakers with no rhyme or reason; but in this novel, the narration between Amber and Violet was fitting. It gave depth to their characters as well as literally gives us both sides of the story albeit it’s a biased take as the information we receive is filtered through each girl’s perceptions and personal views. Make no mistake – this showcases a cast of antiheroes as nobody has kept her nose clean, whether it’s due to lies, deceit, or even murder. It’s a thorny predicament and one that’s fleshed out so well that we can see, and even feel, the conflict on the page. That being said, there is a great deal of angst that punctuates this book, so it’s definitely not a pick-me-up read. Normally, angsty teen characters annoy me but for this novel, it was okay. The sentiments fit the characters though I occasionally got tired of hearing how tortured this girl felt or how horrible of a person that girl thought she was.
Another aspect I liked about this novel was the sense of realism. Amber’s time in prison is no cake walk and while it’s not as graphic as I trust similar novels have been, it doesn’t skirt some of the horrific conditions and dehumanizing treatment the young girls face while incarcerated. It can make for some nerve-wracking moments as Amber has “friends” while in the juvenile detention center, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that those comrades can quickly turn into your worst enemies. Overall, the prison is a gritty place where you start to feel sorry for these girls – not for what they had done to be incarcerated but for the harsh world they’re tossed into that has stripped them of their youth, dignity, and almost everything else save for the secrets they keep.
In contrast, the world of competitive ballet is also explored (though not in as much detail as the girls’ prison life, in my opinion). It’s an odd pairing that works on a symbolic level as the scenes narrated by Amber in the detention center are rife with a thirst for freedom, and one can’t get any freer in terms of physical movement than the art of dance. Yet the young ballerinas are far from existing in an ideal environment. Violet, the character who narrates these portions, recounts bullying and other forms of intimidation on part of the dancers, both female and male. Overall, both “worlds” were perfectly balanced and contrasted each other. While this book isn’t heavy on physical description, the emotional details are realistic and harsh.
So, why the two star review on Goodreads, since, execution-wise, this is a solidly-written and delivered novel? Well, there were three plot holes that didn’t sit well with me. In order for me to discuss these, I will have to reveal critical plot details, so please only read through the numbered list below if you don’t mind knowing how the novel ends, among other things. (No worries – there’s a note below to tell you where the spoilers end.)
1. Why did Amber kill her step-father? Was he abusive? Was it a matter of deep dislike or distrust? What exactly motivated her to commit such a meticulously-plotted crime? I sense I’m missing something here, but for this to serve as the reason why Amber is incarcerated, I felt that, while her musings about the incident seemed believable, Amber never reveals her motivation, which, based on the nature of the crime, was kind of important to know in terms of whether or not I should pity her or be disgusted.
2. How was Violet’s identity not eventually discovered when she switched places with Ori in the detention center? Granted, I could understand how a mix up initially could have taken place since the prison is on lockdown after an attempted “escape” and the last “inmate” to come traipsing in is covered in dirt and wearing prison issue. This inmate is, of course, Violet, with whom Ori has traded places. In the chaos of the moment, I could see how this character’s identity could have been confused by the guards. But in the long run, such a ruse would have been impossible as someone would have eventually figured out that Violet is not Ori. That ending, while it brings swift justice, seemed a bit too quick for my liking as the book doesn’t end there but carries on, allowing for the passage of time. Yet the character’s true identity is never discovered, which didn’t seem realistic.
3. The entire fiasco could have been avoided if Violet had not put herself in a compromising position in the first place (and this is my biggest gripe). The entire plot hinges on the fact that Violet allowed herself to get “caught” engaging in sexual behaviors with Cody, a boy in her ballet class. Her actions are covertly photographed/recorded by two rivals who imply that they will use the images to ruin her reputation. But if Violet wouldn’t have allowed herself to even be in that situation to begin with, nothing would have happened. For me, there is a difference between a character who is forced to take matters into her own hands for a “good” reason (such as she’s being abused) and ends up getting in trouble for it and a character who decided to drop her guard (and her pants and sense of dignity) and faces humiliation for doing something foolish. Granted, we’re not supposed to like Violet, but it was hard for me to feel sorry for her when she decided to sexually engage a boy who she didn’t really even like. To me, she did something she shouldn’t have in the first place and, hence, deserved whatever humiliation she had coming to her. So while her tormentors did wrong in spying on her, Violet did wrong as well by acting, shall we say, upon loose morals.
Okay, end of spoilers now!
Overall, it could have been far worse but that being said, even though this book is YA, I’m not sure I would let a teen read it due to its gritty nature. Not to mention there really is no lesson or moral in this novel (other than perhaps don’t get caught or don’t betray your friends). That doesn’t mean that every book should have some sort of deep meaning but seeing as this is (supposedly) for a teen audience, I appreciate seeing some sort of underlying moral readers should take away from it without turning into a sermon. Here, we’re left feeling cold with no real takeaway other than a mild case of melancholy.
Language – Sparse, much to my surprise, with only a few strong profanities (including one or two F-words).
Violence – Violent acts, from stabbings to poisonings, do occur on the page but they’re rendered in an artistic, almost surrealistic, way that they avoid becoming visceral.
Sexual Content – The strongest sexual content occurs near the end of the book where one of the characters has sexual contact with a male character; while the acts themselves are vaguely described, it’s no secret or surprise what they’re doing. Elsewhere, passing references are made to girls kissing girls, some characters call a pair of heterosexual female friends “lesbos,” and both narrators make non-graphic statements about knowing which friends of theirs were sexually active with their boyfriends.
Overall, The Walls Around Us did stay true to its intriguing premise and it’s a good change of pace to read stories that don’t always showcase pristine or moral “heroes.” That being said, the various unaddressed plot issues and the actions of one character were enough to keep me from rating this higher. In the end, readers who enjoy books with characters possessing murky morals and a tightly written emotional atmosphere (more so than physical environment) will probably enjoy this. Myself, while I sincerely admired the writing style and thought the unscrupulous characters were rendered well, it was a tad too murky and angst-riddled for me to award it more stars than I did on Goodreads (FYI: I awarded this book two stars out of five).