[Note: I received my copy of the book from Thomas Allen & Son in exchange for a review.]
The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices … 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. — [X]
I really don’t know how else to put it but basically, Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us is a most poetic, most elegant sledgehammer to the heart.
As the summary says, there are two narratives that are slowly unravelling the truth. One from Amber, an inmate at a girls’ detention centre, and one from Violet, a talented ballerina who is poised to live her dream of going to Julliard. What is interesting is how the title of the books applies to both characters: the one inside and the one without.
With Amber, we get a glimpse of the physical and psychological boundaries that the girls cannot cross. With Violet, we get the … well, more of the same, though in a different context:
So much is about how you look on the outside. That’s what matters to most people. Smooth your hair and bobby-pin it down. Use as many pins as you need. Be sure to flick the eyeliner crumble out from the corners of your eyes. Wear your prettiest clothes. Pale noncolours* help, like powder pink. Keep that good-girl mask on and no one will see past it to the bad, unstable girl inside. — Page 69-70
We see how, despite being the one in trapped in jail, Amber is the one who has the closest thing to friendship with those around her. And how, despite being free, Violet’s every movement is marked only by the absence of her best friend Orianna. But these boundaries begin shifting and transforming over the course of the novel.
First, when Amber is caught at a chaotic event at the facility when all the cell doors are opened and unguarded. [This serves as the opening of the novel and, wow, if there were a contest for best opening of a novel, I think Nova Ren Suma would win: We were gasoline rushing for a lit match. We were bared teeth. Balled fists. A stampede of slick feet. We went wild, like anyone would. We lost our fool heads.] Second, when Violet takes a trip to the detention centre. And the final breach is the presence of Orianna herself.
While Ori starts off not knowing where the walls are, sometimes knocking herself against them, she soon learns to navigate her way through these invisible boundaries in a way that brings a taste of freedom to Aurora Hills:
She saw us as we could be, if we weren’t locked up here. She saw what the judge couldn’t see and what the public defender only pretended to see and what our own mothers, who refused to come on visiting day, should have seen. — Page 195.
The Walls Around Us is a thriller unlike any other I’ve read; this masterpiece of a novel tactfully explores what it means to be a teenage girl in a world that is eager to perceive guilt and monstrosity in every one of her actions and non-actions. It is a book about friendships forged in fires, and friendships that ought not to have been tempered. The girls’ stories are warm and vicious in turns, and the language is sharp but lyrical. Putting this book down to do anything– eat, wash dishes, meet friends– is an absolute wrench. It is one of my favourite reads ever, and if you want to read only one book with magical realism this year, it really should be this one.
*Can I just say how genius it is to describe pale pink as a noncolour? Because it totally is.