by Donna Kidd

On the morning I write this, the news is circulating that Robert Durst, the allegedly murderous real estate scion (and excuse for writers like me to use the word “scion”), has been arrested. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a surprise: for the HBO series The Jinx, Durst agreed to a long interview (his first), and the brashness of his oversharing has come off like a dare to investigators.

One moment of The Jinx is particularly chilling: during a break from the interview, Durst’s microphone picks up his voice as he whispers, “I did not knowingly, purposely, intentionally lie. I did make mistakes.” When his lawyer informs him that his microphone is still hot, Durst seems startled but unconcerned. “Nobody tells the whole truth,” he says.

Nova Ren Suma’s new novel THE WALLS AROUND US (out March 24) is far more ambiguous than The Jinx; after all, is there really anyone who thinks Durst isn’t guilty? Nevertheless, I kept thinking about the two works side by side, for they share a sense of enigma. Like The Jinx, THE WALLS AROUND US concerns itself with the notion of “the whole truth,” and how new pieces of information can sometimes alter the very concept of truth entirely.

Two women narrate THE WALLS AROUND US: Violet, a young dancer and high school graduate with a bright future; and Amber, locked up at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. A third girl, Orianna, links these two girls—but how? Orianna was once a dancer, but then committed a crime and wound up in Aurora Hills. There, she died. Is that all there is to it? Is that all we need to know?

Nova Ren Suma’s strategy is to push the reader into propulsive situations without much immediate context, which is to say that the reader rides out her first impression until it becomes clear that the first impression is worthless. First, there is a prison riot, where Amber seems like one of the other girls until we start to glimpse her past with an abusive stepfather. Next, there is Violet’s journey with some friends to the site of the now vacant Aurora Hills (“There are dry candles. None are lit. The pile of filthy teddy bears I saw in the photos online is still there”), and we understand that something very bad has happened there, but what? When we finally see Orianna arrive at Aurora Hills, it feels like an inciting incident—yet it comes halfway through the book.

The novel’s structure is not linear. There’s trauma at the center of it, and Suma keeps drawing her scenes around that trauma, circling it and getting closer and closer with each pass. This threatens to make the book a little too cagey for its own good, and the constant portents sometimes seem like a sleight-of-hand; the narrators keep hinting at horrible things from the past, and after a while, I wanted to grab them, shake them, and shout, Just out with it! But this is part of the novel’s method. It moves at a glacial pace through abstraction toward clarity. In many ways, this mimics the points of view of the characters themselves—how they don’t know anything about each other...until they do.

Nova’s moments always feel compelling, even if their temporal or thematic relationship to one another isn’t immediately clear. Is this part of the point—that sometimes we get so swept up, we can’t see the big picture? The audience that watches Violet dance can only see the beauty, not the ugliness and violence and guilt behind the dance—nor can they see that behind the stage, “where the audience never goes, this side of the curtain is tattered and plain.” The people who look upon the girls at Aurora Hills can only see their crimes, not the reasons behind those crimes. First impressions are easy, and most people want their assumptions confirmed. “When people decide there’s ugliness inside you,” Violet tells us, “they’ll be looking to find it on your face.”

This is why Orianna is, in so many ways, the key figure, because she is the unknowable center of the novel. Was she a beautiful dancer? A cold killer? A naïve young woman? A victim? What you believe depends on what you know—and the fascinating implication of THE WALLS AROUND US is that sometimes, the longer you stare at someone, the stranger they become.

Donna Kidd is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine. She inherited a vespa and isn’t embarrassed, not even a little.

The Walls Around Us Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616203726
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Algonquin Young Readers - March 24th, 2015

THE WALLS AROUND US will be available on March 24. Pre-order your copy today!

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