Perhaps you know Shirley Jackson for her short story ‘The Lottery’ that you read in an American literature class. She published tens of short stories and several novellas, centering on themes of isolation, ‘otherness’, and a perverted sense of justice. Everytime I read one of her stories, I talk about them as creepy, eerie, disturbing, mind-bending, unexpected, yet familiar. They are familiar because she has so influenced our current generation of authors (Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, etc) that we surely know her tales just by rubbing shoulders with more contemporary works.
As I read The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, I kept thinking about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, published a few years before Jackson’s death in 1965. The two stories are so similar that if I described key elements in Jackson’s story, it would reveal important plot points in The Walls Around Us. Both tackle Jackson’s favorite themes that I mentioned earlier, and even some finer details make a dual appearance.
That’s not to say that the stories are identical, however. The Walls Around Us has two narrators: Amber, an inmate in a maximum security juvenile detention center in upstate New York, and Violet, a rich ballet dancer on the cusp of a successful career at Juilliard. They narrate their lives and experiences, but they both have a curious obsession with Ori. Ori, who is a former ballet dancer and Violet’s best friend, is convicted of murder and becomes Amber’s cellmate.
As the story progresses, you realize that Amber’s words, “I knew that just because people on the outside were free and clean, it didn’t mean they were the good ones,” ring true. Both Amber and Violet are telling Ori’s story, but they are deliberately not telling all of it. As you piece together different angles, versions of events, and correct the timeline that is given, you see that something very dark and disturbing emerges.
The narrative style itself is very beautifully written. Though I usually dislike first-person narration, it made sense to use it in this book because it highlights the differences in the ways each character tells her version of the story. Besides that, the prose and rhythm of the sentences are gorgeous, and I appreciated that the paragraphs were built in a way that wasn’t always linear and straightforward.
I enjoyed reading The Walls Around Us because the story is intriguing, it’s well-edited, and the storytelling itself is of such a high caliber that I would point to this as an example of what to aim for in a YA novel.
On a side note, after reading The Walls Around Us, I was inspired to read all of Shirley Jackson’s stories this year. Anyone with me??
Thank you Algonquin Young Readers for providing an e-ARC for me to review! That didn’t affect my opinion of the book in any way.