Life is unfair. It’s even more unfair when you get tangled up with the justice system. One of the things that I’ve had to unlearn over my 29 years as a privileged white dude is my faith in the fairness and equity of the justice system. The Walls Around Us explores the cracks of the justice system from the perspective of youth, particularly young girls of colour. I was nearly tempted to give up on this novel a few chapters in, because the shifting perspectives and timelines were a little too much for me at the moment. Something about Nova Ren Suma’s storytelling asked me to persevere, however, and I’m not sorry I did.
There are three stories in this book—Amber’s, Violet’s, and Orianna’s—and two narrators—Amber and Violet. Amber is serving a sentence in a juvenile detention centre for the murder of her abusive stepfather. This is where she meets Orianna. Violet is anticipating her departure for Julliard, but while doing so, gets caught up in memories of her best friend, Orianna, and the tragedy that connects them. Violet and Amber kind of, sort of meet—but to go into more detail would be telling. Suffice it to say, The Walls Around Us is a twisty, turny narrative with a surreal use of time and place. Suma’s narrative is mostly narration and inner monologue, allowing us to explore the mindsets of these two very different girls.
Suma opens one part of the book with a quotation from Lullabies for Little Criminals, a novel I adore, and I understand why. Like O’Neill, Suma is interested in the ways in which we police marginalized identities—in this case, young women, poor women, women of colour. As we get to know Amber, as we learn about her side of the story, why she ended up in prison, etc., we’re asked to empathize with her perspective: yes, she committed a crime—but is her sentence just? If a 13-year-old lashes out against an adult who is abusing her, is the just reaction to imprison her for potentially the rest of her life? Or is that just the easiest thing to do within the system we’ve created—and we tell ourselves we can’t feel bad about it, because the system is the thing that does it to her. We might wring our hands a little—isn’t it such a shame she did what she did—but the law is the law is the law, right?
Amber’s story is connected to the other girls’ stories. Innocent or guilty, it doesn’t really matter—do they really deserve to be imprisoned and treated the way they do? I’m not going to get into a full-on discussion of whether or not we should have prisons in the first place, but it’s hard to read this book and not to question, at least a little bit, what these types of institutions actually do for us, other than warehouse people until they break even more than they were before they were locked away.
Meanwhile, Violet is ostensibly free—or is she? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Suma chooses dance as Violet’s passion. It’s a hobby, sport, career—whatever it is to you personally—that demands focus, grace, determination, and strength. Yet like many specialized fields, it comes with its host of stereotypes and expectations, particularly for young women. Violet carries with her a psychic burden of her own, a trail of bullying and self-conscious monitoring. And now, of course, there is guilt of a different kind….
Violet is a great example of a sympathetic yet unlikable character. She is, frankly, a self-absorbed jerkface—but we can understand why. And without going into spoilers, Suma does a pretty good job of eventually explaining why Violet does what she does. And whether or not you find all of this predictable doesn’t diminish the significance of the story, in my opinion.
When we finally get to meet Orianna, the last pieces of the puzzle click into place. The Walls Around Us is the type of book that is about pay-off for the reader: yes, the narrative flow is confusing at first, but if you stick with it. The last act of the book is pretty much a “how it really happened” (or, to be completely fair, how Amber relates what Orianna said happened—it’s perhaps a stretch to claim that anyone is a reliable narrator here).
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would think of this book after I started reading it. Part of me thought I would end up loving it, part of me thought I would end up hating it. Neither really happened—nor do I think I’m in the middle of the road. I think I loved Suma’s writing style and the motifs she explores. I enjoyed my time with these characters. I can appreciate the story, although I’m not entirely sure it’s what I really wanted to read at the time I read it. You might love this novel too, or hate it, or view it through many facets like I did.