“‘Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me.’
The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. 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.
Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.”
(From the Goodreads description of “The Walls Around Us” by Nova Ren Suma)
It is a rare author who can write authentically about ballet and prison. Fortunately, the only one of the two that Nova Ren Suma has personally experienced is ballet. According to the notes in my copy of the book, she studied ballet as a teenager so she knows that world quite well. The juvenile detention center, although not an environment she knew intimately, is portrayed equally beautifully.
One of the strengths of this wild and intense thriller is the lyrical prose. Suma may be writing in the English language like many of us do but she uses words like an artist wields paints. Her palette is far more colorful and expansive than many writers’. And it is this way of drawing her story that pulls us in and never lets us go.
“There’s this thumping, and it’s not my pristine pair of pointe shoe shoes touching floor for the first night in their short lives. It’s what’s going on in my head. It’s a stampede.” (Violet)
The two points of view are Amber, a girl in Aurora Hills Detention Center because she murdered her abusive stepfather, and Violet, a self-centered ballerina who is about to graduate from high school and attend Julliard. Connecting them is Orianna, a girl who was/is falsely imprisoned for the murder of two dancers in “the tunnel” outside the theater where she and Violet perform.
“Was/is” is an important distinction because the two narratives are separated by time. How exactly this works (there is an element of magical realism in the initial contact between Amber and Violet) is left until the very end when both points of view come together. Kind of. There is also a lot of “kind of” and events that are up to individual interpretation. I don’t want to spoil the ending and how it all evolves but rest assured your interpretation of the resolution may not be the same as mine – and that’s okay. Suma leaves it to us to figure out.
“…how did this intruder know who Ori was? And how did I, if Ori hadn’t come up our hill and stepped off the blue-painted bus to join us yet?” (Amber)
Both girls have secrets, both girls know the truth, but we are never certain who is telling the truth and who is lying and when. That unreliable narration and contradiction between accounts always keeps the reader on her toes. From the beginning with Amber’s account, we know there was an attempted escape at the prison. From Violet’s opening account, we know that Ori is gone, in prison for murder and that the reason is Violet’s fault.
“Sometimes I think I still have the blood on my face.” (Violet)
From there the stories diverge and intertwine and we learn more (we think) about the girls.
I welcomed the complex characterizations of not only Violet, Ori and Amber but also the secondary characters. Suma gives us teenagers who are not black-and-white, good-or-bad, mean girls or Mary Sues. In other words, realistic teens in hyperrealistic situations. Most girls are not going to be in prison, most are not classical ballerinas – but all of them get jealous and defensive and protective and heartbroken.
Nova Ren Suma is the author of several young adult novels, including “Imaginary Girls” and “17 & Gone” as well as the middle grade novel, “Dani Noir.” She attended Antioch College and Columbia University and lives in New York City. She can be reached through her website, novaren.com. Her latest novel, “The Walls Around Us,” can be purchased at bookstores or from Amazon.