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The Walls Around Us (are pretty darn impressive)
Finally! In The Walls Around Us, Suma has delivered the book I wanted back when I first read Imaginary Girls. It’s got the good stuff I knew to expect — her wordsmithing really is excellent (my notes use the effusive words “lush” and “sensual”), she slides between fantasy and reality with a slippery grace — and those qualities works together perfectly with the complicated plot and seriously broken characters.
In short, I was blown away by this one.
However, within a few weeks of finishing the book I felt this vague sense of distaste and wasn’t really singing its praises very loudly, because we have here a book that is excellently written but (much like The Tightrope Walkers) not entirely likeable.
I blame Violet. I hated her with a depth characters can’t often evoke, because she’s written that well.
The again, and luckily, likeability isn’t at all an issue for the Printz, while good writing is, which makes this one a serious contender.
I could probably stop there, because really that’s all you need to know, but there are a few/six things worth highlighting.
One: Five starred reviews (six if you count VOYA, with only PW not jumping on the bandwagon), so apparently I’m just following the pack when I praise this one.
Two: If literary callbacks are your thing, take a look at this in tandem with Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They seem to have grown from the same fertile garden of madness, loyalty, love, and poison, and this struck me as having a bit of homage woven in without ever feeling like it was in any way cribbing from the earlier work. I also found that the narrative voice in Amber’s sections, when she speaks in the plural, was reminiscent of the utterly strange plural narrator in The Virgin Suicides, another book about love, loyalty, and really broken people.
Three: There’s some really dense, interesting psychology at play here, and it makes this the kind of book you can read more than once, and read on various levels. The way Amber and Violet are both so intensely, almost (maybe) sexually focused on Ori; the way friendship and power and control play out for each of them; the way there are two liars and killers narrating the novel but one manages to be charming and enticing and the other is just awful, playing with ideas of what it means to be sympathetic. (Worth noting that I did wonder if Violet was a little too textbook — poor little rich girl obsessed with control, has a psychotic episode brought on by stress and abuse — but in the end I decided that it all worked and anyway there’s way more Amber in the book and she is not too textbook and also narrating after death which is makes her endlessly fascinating and overshadows the more conventional narrative voice.)
Four: Symbolism! Lots of it, but just to take the really easy one, let’s look at the names. Amber is a fossilized substance that holds for eternity, frozen in a single moment. Violets are ephemeral, simple, but then there’s a way to read these meanings that is almost the opposite of the characters — after all, Violet is alive and Amber isn’t — but then that in the end Amber endures and Violet doesn’t (maybe. The ending is a whole post in and of itself, and I don’t know what I think about it and I am hoping it’s going to come up in the comments and someone will be brilliant about it and illuminate me). I managed a full page of notes speculating about the meaning of the names and where Ori fits in (apparently “rising” is one meaning, and I wonder about that in the context of that ending in particular). Either Suma is really really good at thinking through every detail (I would believe it) or she has a hell of a subconscious, and either way it added some lovely extra layering.
Five: Thematic scope for the win. One of the many admirable things about this novel is that it can be many different things. I know there are those who read this as a text about female friendship. I saw it as a book about belonging and longing and self-knowledge and the way the world can screw you up. I think there’s probably an equally accurate reading that looks at those psychological elements I already pointed out and sees this as a story about power. Another reading might be about the way our pasts inform and haunt us. Several of the reviewers seem to be particularly taken by the themes surrounding the meanings of guilt and innocence. All themes to all readers, and how many books can say that?
Six: Genre-blending is always to the good. There are elements of horror, of fantasy, of mystery, of mean girls and prison tales — it’s a hodge-podge of elements, and they all pull together to result in something that comes across as unlike anything else.
So yeah. I have books I love more, and books I think are also serious frontrunners, but I’ve got my money on this one making it through to the final five.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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