First off I need to say a MASSIVE thank you to Algonquin Young Readers, for accepting my request to view this book on NetGalley, and to NetGalley for the service that they provide.
'The Walls Around Us' is the first novel that I've read by Nova Ren Suma, so I didn't really know what I was expecting - but my god, it utterly blew me away. We follow the perspectives of Amber and Violet, one girl who is alive and one girl who is long dead, and through their perspectives we unravel their own personal secrets and the story behind Orianna Speerling, the person who links them both together.
It's been three years since fifteen year old Orianna was convicted of the murders of two of the fellow dancers from her ballet class, leaving her branded "Bloody Ballerina" for the rest of her life, which will be spent behind bars. Violet is still coming to terms with the fact that her best friend of over seven years was a murderer, even though she's managed to move on with her life pretty well: lead roles in multiple ballet productions, and a place a Juilliard, all coming after the incarceration of her biggest rival and closest friend. Meanwhile, Amber has been locked up for years following the accidental death of her step-father: an accident that her family, and the judge and jury, all automatically assumed that she had caused. But on the fateful August night that we join her at the Aurora Hills Juvenile Detention Center, all of the doors come unlocked, and the prisoners run riot, leading to Amber experiencing a very strange encounter.
This is a beautifully written novel with two completely unreliable narrators, which makes for a brilliantly confusing and intellectual plot. At the start of the novel, it seems as though the guilty and the innocent are very clearly stated - there doesn't seem to be any room for query, because the stories are told so passionately that it feels as though they must be honest. However, by the end of the novel you will be questioning and re-questioning everything that you've read, feeling more and more jigsaw puzzles pieces snapping into place. Instead of stating all of the developments bluntly and easily, Nova Ren Suma has an amazing writing style that really makes you consider the implications of the statements she's laying out for you, and you are completely unable to see what is coming until it's right there in front of you.
There are aspects of the novel that seemed a bit too much for me - some of the timelines are very easy to get confused, and it can be hard to keep all of the goings on straight in your head, so I definitely think this is a book that you're going to need to take time with. I'm already considering re-reading it, because I'm sure that there are insinuations and clues that I've missed scattered throughout, because for some reason I just have the strangest feeling that I'm missing something. Things do unwind and link up eventually, but I think if I'd read this book over a few more days, or possibly a couple of weeks, I definitely wouldn't have been as impacted by it as I was by reading it quite quickly. This is one that you need to read in as close to one sitting as you can manage, or you will end up detracting from your enjoyment of it.
But other than that one negative, there is nothing else wrong with this novel. The characters are all so convincingly well written: all of the prisoners at Aurora Hills have such strong personalities and come across as very individualistic, meaning that none of them feel surplus to requirements in the unfolding of the stories. I also like the fact that - despite there being forty-two inmates in the detention center - we don't encounter too many characters: the ones that are put in are there for a reason, and there's no unnecessary listing of names and crimes, we only get information about the ones that are relevant. Because of how well the inmates are written, you feel as though you empathise and root for them, no matter whether they are guilty of their individually accused crimes or not. I think it's very good that Nova Ren has managed to take a section of society who are normally utterly looked down upon, not sympathised with at all, and has managed to make them easy to care for and cheer on - it's a testament to her skill as a character writer that this is possible.
Similarly, another fact that points towards the skill that Nova Ren possesses, is the transition between the voices. It is written absolutely perfectly: it's impossible to get the two viewpoints confused, because Violet is extremely outspoken and, at times, abrasive, while Amber seems to be more passive, preferring to watch and listen to the people around her while she delivers their books on her library cart. For the majority of the first half of the book, Amber avoids actively participating in their conversations, until she has no other option but to be forced into their discussions. Despite the fact that Violet is an over-achiever, one of the best ballerinas that her dance class has ever seen, and therefore she has quite a pompous and uppity attitude, you still feel as though you can support her. She's been through a lot, being friends with a double murderer, and her commitment to her dancing and her sheer determination to succeed are both admirable qualities... At least to begin with.
I'm not sure what it is about this novel that grabbed me so completely, I can't put my finger on what pulled me in, but something definitely did. The supernatural, ghostly elements are understated, which means that if you normally avoid supernatural novels in favour of more gritty contemporary novels, this will probably still appeal to you. The majority of the book definitely focuses upon the emotions and the motives behind the characters - what leads to their actions, how and why - so it is quite based in character development. The eventual climax of the novel is written believably, not in a throwaway I-don't-know-how-to-end-this fashion, meaning that I wasn't disappointed by the ending in the way that I'd been dreading with the rest of the book being so great. The beliefs that Nova Ren has about justice are well stated throughout the novel, and it's good to find a strong opinion on such a controversial topic, especially in YA. I can't think of any other books that are anything like this one, which is a great thing, and it's definitely a unique read which I highly recommend. From the wrapping up nature of the ending, I'd definitely assume that this is going to be a standalone novel, which I think is great - there's nothing else that could be added to this novel, and if it turned into a series of stories exploring each of the inmates back stories I think it would just get a bit too repetitive and would take away from the magic of this first installment.
I need to get hold of more Nova Ren Suma books, right away. I haven't been this gripped by a writing style in a very long time, and I'm intrigued to see what the rest of her novels feel like, and whether their characters are as strong as these ones.