By Nova Ren Suma
Available now from Algonquin Young Readers (Workman)
THE WALLS AROUND US is a ghost story that becomes ever more eerie as it goes on, twining its way around you like the vines growing outside Aurora Hills, a juvenile detention center. Aurora Hills is the home of Amber, sent there when she was thirteen. It was the home of Ori, Violet's best friend.
The girls both have terrible secrets in their past, as does the entire prison. Nova Ren Suma doesn't shy away from many of the abuses committed in these institutions, nor from the racism and classism of the justice system in the United States. THE WALLS AROUND US shifts back and forth in time, slowly revealing myriad tragedies, including the shocking murder of all forty-two residents of Aurora Hills and just what Vee and Amber have to do with it.
Vee and Ori were ballet dancers, both talented but bullied for different reasons. Amber and her mother were abused by her stepfather, and Amber feared her younger sister was next. The press says Ori killed two other ballerinas in a vicious rage. The press says Amber engineered the car wreck that killed her stepfather. Everyone in Aurora Hills says Ori and Amber are the only two innocent ones there. But THE WALLS AROUND US is a story where no one knows the whole truth; at least, not until it is too late.
Nova Ren Suma's writing gets stronger with every novel. She's always had style to spare, but I feel like her plots are becoming both tighter and more ambitious. THE WALLS AROUND US is slow in event and focuses more on developing the main characters, as you might expect from a Suma novel. But the overarching mystery of what happened between Vee and Ori and what happened to the girls of Aurora Hills ties everything together as the story begins hurtling to its macabre conclusion.
Questions of innocence and guilt, as well as the social issues surrounding juvenile incarceration, ground this slightly surreal story of a malevolent haunting. There's also the question of remorse, which is always the question of justice. Do only the penitent deserve to go free? This is the kind of horror story where everyone gets what's coming to them. I thought it was a satisfying, memorable read.