Dark, Haunting, Beautiful – One of My Favorites of 2015
(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review from book blogger Miss Print. Also, trigger warning for sexual harassment and allusions to rape.)
Home is where the heart is, and where the hell is, and where the hate is, and where the hopelessness is. Which made Aurora Hills pretty much like home.
Amber Smith is a little more than three years into four-year sentence at Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for manslaughter. After she ages out, she’ll be transferred to an adult prison for killing her abusive stepfather, a crime she may or may not have committed at the tender age of thirteen.
Then one hot, humid August night, the cell doors come open – and for a few glorious hours (no one quite knows how long the power was out and the COs caught unawares; it’s as though time has stopped, or lost all meaning), the forty-one girls housed at Aurora Hills get a taste of the freedom long denied them. Some, like Amber’s cellmate D’amour, make a run for it – only to be carved open by the barbed wire atop the first fence, and then burned to a crisp by the middle, electrified fence. Others overtake the various wings – A, B, C, even D, which houses the suicides – ransacking the canteen and causing general mayhem.
But Amber? Despite her protestations that none of them are special (“…the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could.”), that night Amber is afforded something very special indeed: a glimpse of their future.
Violet Dumont (“Vee” for short) is on her way Julliard. Since she was a kid, Vee wanted nothing more than to be a prima ballerina. A famous prima ballerina – the best of the best. But in class, she was always overshadowed by her more talented friend Ori – while not being bullied by resident “Mean Girls” Harmony and Rachel, that is. All that changed during the dress rehearsals for the spring showcase (The Firebird), when a double murder in the smoking tunnel behind the Dumpster out back would alter the courses of Vee and Ori’s lives irrevocably. (Or so it would seem.)
Orianna Speerling is the tie that binds Amber and Vee together. A sweet girl from the “wrong” side of the tracks, she never really stood a chance: not out in the “real” world, and not in Aurora Hills. Her future dissipated the second her mother walked out on her without a word of explanation – just a freezer burned ice cream cake laced with sickly sweet cough syrup. “What do you deserve, if you don’t deserve a mother?”
Hauntingly beautiful and seductively spooky, Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us is fast shaping up to be one of my favorite 2015 releases. I devoured it in one afternoon and evening, which is a rarity for me; the last full-length novel I finished in one day was Sarah Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine, way back in July. “Compulsively readable” doesn’t begin to cover it; short of super gluing it to my hands, it couldn’t have been more un-put-downable.
From the first pages (which includes a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale – one of my all-time favorites), The Walls Around Us assumes a delightfully creepy, even ominous tone, opening with the August night when the cell doors mysteriously sprang open and let the girls into a world devoid of adults. They went wild, and so did I. The Walls Around Us is nothing if not a book of secrets; and to watch them unfold – much like the flowers on those hallucinogenic vines creeping up the walls of Aurora Hills – is a pleasure like no other.
Mysteries abound, but don’t begin and end with the supernatural. As the dual narrators Amber and Vee tell their stories – so very different to start, yet with some rather horrifying points of convergence – questions of their guilt and innocence abound, ping-ponging the reader between wildly different conclusions. All of the girls at Aurora Hills are innocent; and yet, none of them are. It just depends on who you’re asking, and why they’re saying.
Amber, Violet, and Ori: all of them are different states of dead. Already dead, soon-to-be-dead, and just plain dead inside. Not all of these states are mutually exclusive, or even permanent.
While the ghost stories and murder mysteries steal the show, there’s so much more to love here. Nova Ren Suma’s writing is simply breathtaking; her prose is lyrical, soulful, mesmerizing. The Walls Around Us is brimming with quotable lines and passages.
In her role as the keeper of the library, Amber is full of geeky book love; to wit: “Our private taste in books showed a hint of our secret selves, and sometimes I was the only one who got to see those secrets.” I’m a sucker for a book that celebrates reading. How meta!
Suma also touches upon a number of real-world issues, such as the prison industrial complex; sexual harassment and assault; child abuse; the war on drugs; self-harm; bullying; and racism and classism. It’s no wonder why (biracial, motherless, poverty-stricken) Ori is serving time while (rich, white, privileged) Vee pirouettes free. “When people decide there’s ugliness inside you, they’ll be looking to find it on your face.”
And, despite copious foreshadowing, the story’s climax is still full of surprises.
The very prospect of reviewing The Walls Around Us fills me with angst; when I fall for a story this hard, I usually avoid reviewing it, since nothing I might say could possibly do it justice. But I received an ARC for review, so review I must. I can only hope that my disjointed attempt will inspire you to pick up a copy, or at least not discourage you from doing so. It’s an amazing read, one that will stay with you long after you close the book, and possibly even inspire a reread or two. (Another rarity for me, but I’m planning on it.)
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Ori is biracial. (She’s described variously as “half one thing and half another” and with “medium-brown skin and thick, straight black hair […] None of us could tell if she was Latina or mixed.”) Furthermore, you could argue that racism and classism played a role in her incarceration – it was easier for folks to believe that Ori, the girl from the “wrong” family, was guilty of murder vs. her wealthy white friend.
While the ghost story/murder mysteries dominate the story, Suma also touches upon a number of real-world issues, such as the prison industrial complex; self-harm; bullying; sexual harassment and assault; the war on drugs; and racism and classism.