Sometimes we read a book that really seems to click with people and that was definitely the case with The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Even the members who said they normally would not be attracted to a book like this had plenty to say. Some had read other works by Nova Ren Suma such as Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone and find her lyrical and unusual style appealing. You cannot discuss this novel without being impressed by the beautiful language and descriptions that the author invokes and some members are interested to read more by this author.
The twitter hashtag for this novel is #orangeisthenewblackswan and we began by discussing the TV series Orange is the New Black and the film Black Swan and their representations of women. Those of the group familiar with the TV series and film thought that this is a wonderful descriptor for a novel which really defies description. With its multiple characters, alternate/parallel worlds, magical realism, shifting time frames and quite convoluted plot, this is not an easy book to describe in a few short sentences.
As this is one of those books that reaches its conclusion quite quickly (some of us were a little unsure of what had actually happened) so that we were all clear on the plot we read a short plot summary. This helped us to place the order of events in some chronological format. A discussion of the narrative structure led to some difference of opinion. Some of us were intrigued by the switching back and forth between time sequences whilst others felt it alienated them a little – as we have seen with other texts swapping between narrators is a style that not all readers enjoy. We asked the question – Who can you trust as a narrator? We felt that although Amber, who in a sense lies by omission and neglects to complete details, was more reliable than Violet. Violet is seemingly the upstanding and responsible narrator, the “perfect” child; however, it becomes quite clear as the novel progresses that Violet is quite delusional and definitely in denial.
The style of the first personal plural narrative employed by Amber was fascinating. She uses the words “we” and “us” to give a more intimate connection to the collective lives of the inmates. The effect of this narration is that the group, the girls of the prison, become one character.
We regret so much. We regretted what we did on the outside. We regretted taunting someone or egging someone on or being the one to do nothing. We regretted our cowardice. Our loyalties. Our hot tempers. How naïve we were, how childish, how slow, how reckless, how senseless, how dumb.
The irony of her shared narration was commented upon as Amber herself notes that she never truly feels that she belongs in the detention centre, her perceived innocence separates her, and she feels she is always an outsider looking in.
Nova Ren Suma writes complicated, disturbed and tormented characters yet she manages to pull back enough that they are not caricatures. We spent a long time discussing Violet, her actions, the repercussions of her actions and her fate. We wondered if at times she was experiencing psychosis and did truly believe that Orianna committed the murders. At times though she is clearly aware of what she has done:
I’m looking at them. Studying them. My hands that no one ever accused of doing anything so awful as to kill a girl. Two girls. Let’s count Or and say three. My clean hands.
Some of us did feel sympathy for Violet whilst others felt she was deserving of her fate as she showed no remorse. The ones who had sympathy for her pointed to the neglect of her parents and their expectations placed upon her, the constant and relentless bullying from Harmony and Rachel and her deep insecurity that she is never going to be good enough. It is one of those ironies that the child who has been given every material opportunity just does not have the talent and grace that the child without opportunity has naturally. We talked about the relationship between bullies and victims and the fine line that can separate them. On paper Orianna would seem to be the perfect victim for two rich white teen girls. Orianna is poor, bi-racial, child of a single parent and an individual, yet Violet who is white, privileged and middle-class is the bullies’ target. As we noted the bullies’ strategies can only work if the victim allows it and Violet cared what the others thought so became their easy mark. As Violet acknowledges,
Some girls make enemies out of other girls, and you don’t even know why.
We also discussed what can make a person actually snap and turn on their bullies; in Violet’s case with dreadful results. The incident with the alleged photograph of Violet in a compromising situation caused Violet incredible emotional and psychological trauma. Not knowing what the girls saw, if they had taken a photograph, and if they had, what they were going to do with it, was the catalyst that pushed Violet over the edge. We all agreed that the behaviour of Harmony and Rachel was despicable. It was commented that although Violet’s actions were shocking it was the aftermath of the assault and Violet’s behaviour afterward that was truly reprehensible. Although the murder was absolutely an act of passion and rage, we were of mixed opinions about whether she panicked and then could not change her mind, whether she deliberately framed Orianna or whether she suffers some trauma that blocks the truth from her mind.
Amber is also a character who has killed and we discussed what made Amber’s actions different from Violet’s. We were all of the opinion that there was no doubt that Amber had intentionally killed her step-father; her only mistake here though was not hiding her incriminating diary. We discussed Amber’s motives and the impact upon a child when a mother chooses an abusive man over her own children:
The wrenching emotion that came out of her at losing the deep and passionate love of her life – not her children, but a man – told me what I already knew: There was no one my mother loved more than him.
It was also unanimously agreed that Amber had intentionally poisoned the other girls as she was not able to comprehend a life for herself outside the juvenile detention centre. Her fear of the outside, and the realisation that her mother will not come for her, is too much for her to bear.
Orianna is intriguing because we only ever see her through others’ perceptions and we had differing ideas as to why the author would withhold the character’s voice. It was commented by some that they felt her character to be a little false, a little “too good to be true.” Talking about Orianna led into an interesting discussion about the ideals of justice and the unspoken and common justice that occurs in the prison. Amber comments, several times, that everyone in the prison loved Orianna because they knew that out of them all she was pure of heart and the only one who did not deserve to be there. We do see at times though that Orianna is full of rage toward Violet although she suppresses her feelings:
Deep down, she believed everything good in her life was something she’d never deserved to have in the first place …
Like Amber she has also been abandoned by her mother and expects that bad things will happen to her; she is accepting of her fate. Indeed the majority of the girls in the prison system, unlike Violet, come from abusive and dysfunctional home backgrounds. Nova Ren Suma deftly incorporates the themes of prejudice, gender, class and race into this novel as she offers these words on the American justice system:
They decide as soon as they meet you. Ten seconds in. If you’re poor. If you’re brown. If you’re black. If you’ve got an accent. If your skirt’s too short … If you’re any of that? Or all of that … We were told that everyone faced equal treatment, but we knew the truth. We only had to look around and see who was here.
We also thought that the title of the novel suited it perfectly as the novel is an example of physical and metaphorical walls. We discussed the “walls” of the novel – age, gender, race, and opportunity; Violet’s wall of insecurities and hang-ups and always being “second best”; the mental walls of bullying, perfectionism, fear, betrayal and prejudice and the physical walls of the prison.
Finally we discussed the ending and for some this was the least satisfactory part of the novel, primarily because some of us were just not completely sure of what happened. The most confusing part of the novel is in the fluctuating numbers of the dead girls as they are being counted and the importance of the number 42. We came to the conclusion that it was more important to focus on the theme of vengeance and ghostly karma perhaps then to get too hung up on the logistics of the ending. One other issue for some of us is that this would have been a perfect novel for some younger readers in years 8 and 9; however, the scene between Violet and Cody, although pivotal to the plot, pushes it into the older student bracket. With that in mind we would recommend this for 15+.
A readers’ guide can be found at: http://algonquinyoungreaders.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/SUMA-S15-RGG-final.pdf