“We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.”
Amber is an inmate at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center. She might have been innocent once but that’s a hard quality to hold onto on the inside. Like most of the girls at Aurora Hills, Amber is obsessed with the regrets inherent in choosing one path over the other; with the moment everything goes wrong.
Violet, on the other hand, is at the start of a promising ballet career on the outside. Violet has never had much use for co-dependence when her own success and future are at stake. She has a singular focus on the future, on what comes next, on endings.
Then there’s Orianna. Her story is inextricably linked to both Amber’s and Violet’s, but it’s only in the gaps and overlaps in both of their stories that anyone can begin to understand Ori’s.
These three girls had lives and dreams and futures on the outside. They have secrets they keep close inside the walls of Aurora Hills and in their own hearts. At some point three girls arrive at Aurora Hills. But only time will tell if all of them get to walk away in The Walls Around Us (2015) by Nova Ren Suma.
Every aspect of The Walls Around Us comes together to deliver a story about contrasts in one form or another, something that often comes across in terms of themes like guilt vs. innocence and perception vs. reality. Even the title of the book and the vines on the cover hint at the dichotomy between what is “inside” and “outside” for these characters whose lives are all defined in some way by arriving at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center as well as by the secrets that they hold close.
Subtle characterization and Suma’s deliberate writing serve to bring the two narrators, Amber and Violet, to life.
Amber’s narration is filled with short sentences and staccato declarations. She has spent so long defining herself as part of the whole at Aurora Hills that for much of her narration she describes herself as part of a collective “we”; part of a group comprised of her fellow inmates even when she is usually on the periphery as an observer. Everything about Amber’s narration focuses on beginnings and the past. Her chapter titles are always taken from the first words of her chapters. She has an intense and pathological fear of choosing the unknown and having to start again–a motif that is brought to disastrous fruition by the end of the novel.
Violent, despite being on the outside, is a harder character with sharper edges. Her narrative is filled with racing thoughts and run-on sentences. Her chapters are all titled for the final words in her chapters. Throughout the novel she returns, again and again, to what her future will hold. Until the end of the novel when her ever-forward momentum is cut abruptly and permanently short.
Although she is not a narrator and is most often seen in flashbacks or memories, Orianna is the third pivotal character in the novel. Everything Violet and Amber do within the arc of the book is informed by their relationships to Orianna. If Amber is meant to signify the past in The Walls Around Us and Violet is meant to exemplify the future, it’s safe to argue that Orianna is firmly grounded in the present with all of the opportunity and promise that position implies.
Suma’s lush writing moves readers between the past and the present as the story shifts fluidly between Amber and Violet’s memories of what brought them to Aurora Hills and what comes after in this novel that explores the cost of freedom and the power of hope.
The Walls Around Us received 5 starred reviews and much critical acclaim. It is a masterful blend of literary writing, magic realism and a decidedly eerie ghost story. With a layered and thoughtful plot, vivid prose, and skillfully explore themes and characters, The Walls Around Us is not to be missed. Highly recommended.
Possible Pairings: Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, With Malice by Eileen Cook, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten