I thought I had never heard of Nova Ren Suma before I got The Walls Around Us from Netgalley. Turns out I actually acquired her Imaginary Girls ages ago, but (as with so, so, SO many other books) hadn't actually read it yet. Bump another one to the top of the list, I guess; I very much feel like I need to read more.
This is not a book that hits you over the head with its elaborate complexities or fancy gimmicks. After you settle into the two alternating stories, you might think it was straightforward. It's the kind of craftsmanship that sneaks up on you, under your radar. My thoughts on the book have been stewing in the days since I finished it, and they feel richer for it.
On the topmost layer, we have two stories, two point of view characters. One is a wealthy high school senior who is a successful ballet dancer, headed for Julliard. She's preparing for her final show at her old school, thinking about absent friends. The other is an inmate at a correctional facility for violent teenage girls. We meet her on the night that the locks malfunction and the doors open and the girls find themselves suddenly, mysteriously loose. Two very different situations, different characters. Both--competitive ballerina, teenaged inmate--fascinating worlds to enter in their own right.
Soon, we find the connection; the ballerina is Vee, whose best friend, Ori, has been sent to prison. We learn bits about how this happen over the course of the book, mostly from Vee, almost in spite of herself. She is a master compartmentalizer.
In the prison, much of the story seems to be told in the first person plural, although we do have only one narrator--Amber, who has been inside for ages and watches everything with a kind of detachment. But she speaks sometimes of herself--her crime, her separation from the other girls--and sometimes for all the girls--"us," the forty two inmates as a chorus of what it is like to be powerless, to be hopeless, to be without freedom.
What unfolds in both stories is not only what happened, but the characters that made this possible--mean girls, selfishness disguised as friendship, the danger of both hoping and failing to hope. Vee visits the prison grounds for the first time since Ori was sent away; Amber meets Ori when she comes to the prison. It's the delicate construction of these characters, who are complicated and vulnerable and very flawed, that really lifts this novel.
I've put in some effort not to spoil things here; there are several reveals, some of which were very clear to me from early on, some of which I found surprising. None of them, though, was a big page-turner moment. In fact, this book contained two of my favorite things you can put into a book: an understandable and believable look inside the head of someone who treats other people badly, and twists that reveal themselves to the reader gradually, by directing your suspicions and controlling your understanding until you realize you've known for a while what the author has finally told you.
I don't know that this is a book for everyone--it's not fast or flashy, at all. But if you go in for character studies and creepy, saddish, atmospheric stories, highly recommended.