From dense and serious to pure indulgence. Nova Ren Suma is quickly becoming one of my favourite weird authors. Her Imaginary Girls was unlike any YA spec fic I’d ever read, so everything else she’d ever written went on my list as soon as I was done (unfortunately, not enough to satisfy my endless appetite for weird. Why are the best ones never prolific? Kit Whitfield, another writer of totally off-the-wall premises, is the same). I had a lot of difficulty finding Imaginary Girls and was pleased to find that The Walls Around Us is just on Kindle. Hint hint. Nova Ren Suma is ridiculously underrated.
The Walls Around Us is almost like a teenage ghost story by Gillian Flynn. That’s the most succinct way I can describe it. Ren Suma focuses on female friendship and hostility against a background of sharp divisions and inequalities and unfairnesses (economic inequalities, differences of family backgrounds, free vs incarcerated, talented vs untalented, liked vs unlikeable). Against this complicated backdrop she tells a weird, savage, strangely beautiful story.
Now, I thought I’d cracked it almost from the start, when I’d been introduced to the two narrating characters. Violet is rich, privileged, a talented ballerina with a bright future – and a shadow hanging over her. Amber is poor, from a violent family, and in prison where she gets by in being quiet and keeping her head down. Obviously Violet dunnit and Amber is banged up unjustly.
Hahaha. I was in the wrong forest, let alone barking up the wrong tree.
As with all good unreliable narrator stories, the dynamics between the characters and reader shift throughout, as do the characters themselves. Violet begins as the rich, talented ballerina too good for her gossipy town and the petty people in it, who are tolerated only when giving her applause. Her open ambition is almost refreshing. As the story goes on, her wealth, worn so casually, isolates her, her talent is shown up as fourth rate beside her personal tormentors and best friend, her insecurities come to the fore, her defiance becomes brazen arrogance… but she hasn’t changed. We just know more about her now. She’s just shown us more of herself by accident in telling her story.
Amber is a slightly different animal. Unlike Violet, who talks to us incessantly to keep from losing her mind, Amber is keeping things from us. Quiet, prison librarian Amber, who spies on the other girls’ messages and wants only to be left alone to finish her sentence, who just wants her routine, who’s trying to solve a lightning storm of a mystery. Amber, who the other girls think is innocent, and who is innocent in the same way Violet is guilty.
And between them, linking them through time, is Orianna. We never get to hear Orianna’s voice except through Amber and Violet, never see her except through their eyes. We hardly spend much time with her at all, encountering her mostly in Violet’s memories and very briefly in the “now” thread of the story. She’s almost a void, a blank, but if she’s a gap then she’s a gap in the clouds that lets the sunlight through. We slowly get to see her, obliquely through other people’s reactions to her, and though we never learn much concrete about her (Violet never does find out anything about her home life) or how she looks (all we know is she’s mixed race) it’s hard not to feel like you know enough to judge. Orianna is the really talented ballerina, against whose natural musicality Violet is dry and technical, beloved and loveable, winning over the prison girls with her attitude and the same willingness to please that got her in there in the first place. She has a sharp edge, hints of a hard life, and maybe her self-destructive generosity is a facet of that. This is a very “honour among ghost stories” type of tale, a story aimed squarely at the bad, threatening a larger justice than the prison system.
It was an interesting choice to tell an unreliable narrator crime story so one-sidedly, deliberately leaving out one of the major characters, but it comes off beautifully. Amber and Violet, opposite sides of red, are almost fighting over Orianna’s fate.
The ballet thread running through it works on its own merit, providing a great backdrop for this very female domain of competition and furious hard work (and Ren Suma’s character detail is just fantastic) but also works metaphorically. The ballerina gliding so effortlessly across the stage is ferociously strong and controlled. Inside the shiny ballet slippers are feet misshapen and battered by work, by pure ambition. Blisters and mangled toes and knives to lengthen the lives of the shoes, all sorts of disgusting and unromantic things are hidden under the elegant surface.
And we haven’t even touched on the supernatural twist yet. I almost don’t want to spoil it, though I’ve spoiled enough. It was just so not what I was expecting. There was something almost reminiscent of Alyssa Wong’s A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers in it (though The Walls Around Us came first and they’re totally different – I think it’s the strangeness of the twist and the thunderstorms that connect them in my mind). Just, raw and savage. Loved the ending.
Oh, and why did I mention Gillian Flynn earlier? As I said in my review of Dark Places, one of the things I find so interesting in her writing is her exploration of rural American poverty alongside her crime solving, and Ren Suma doesn’t shy away from that uncomfortable nuance. She may not engage with it as deeply as Flynn, but she shows it in a way I haven’t often seen in YA, dealing with its unfairness and traps and ugliness, and dealing with the people caught up in it as real people, rather than statistics or ciphers or appeals to the reader.
The amount I’ve talked about it, you’d think The Walls Around Us is a great rambling thing, but it’s not. It’s a fast read, if only because you have to find out more (and, to her credit, Ren Suma moves relentlessly forwards, never spinning her wheels or holding secrets over the heads of her readers) with a tight, focused plot. The Walls Around Us is a brilliant, dark, weird ghost story that’s stuck with me ever since I read it, and it gives me hope to know that publishers are still taking chances on strange, strange stories.