REVIEW: The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
Dear Ms. Suma,
Your debut novel, Imaginary Girls, served as my first exposure to your work. It featured secrets and sisters, both things I love. The Walls Around Us follows a similar vein. It’s a story of friends and the awful truth that binds them.
Vee and Ori have been best friends since they met as little girls in ballet class. They come from very different backgrounds. Vee’s family is rich and privileged. Biracial Ori lives with her single father. Vee struggles with insecurity and her overwhelming desire to measure up. Ori doesn’t care what other people think, because everyone inevitably loves her. She’s just so wonderful.
These differences carry over into ballet. Vee strives to be the best but comes up short. She’s overshadowed by Ori, who is a natural. Vee loves Ori, but she’s also jealous of her.
But something happened. The inseparable Vee and Ori split — with Vee set to attend Julliard after graduating high school and Ori ending up in a juvenile criminal facility. The Walls Around Us explores how everything went wrong and how, if ever, it can be made right.
Since I have read Imaginary Girls, I knew what to expect coming into this novel. In a sea of fantasy and paranormal books, I think many readers don’t recognize magical realism when they see it. The Walls Around Us is magical realism told as a ghost story.
It’s the ghost story aspect of the book that I’m torn about, which is unfortunate since it’s a major component of the novel. I figured out early what was going on — I know, a common refrain in my reviews — but the problem is I anticipated the reveal because of it. So when the reveal came, my reaction was, “Okay, what’s next then?” I think the strength of magical realism comes from its sense of weirdness and not-quite-rightness. When you figure out what’s causing that strange tone to the book, it loses power.
I’m also conflicted about the overarching narrative. Vee’s not a good person. But I sympathized with her. She tries so hard and never quite hits the mark. Maybe it’s my fondness for unlikeable women, but Vee was easy to picture. I’ve known girls like her. The ones who try to live up to the expectations of others, and themselves, and destroy themselves in the process. They’re trapped by how other people view them. They don’t know how to break out of those walls.
On the other hand, Ori is a good person. She’s innocent. And yet I couldn’t care less. I never got a firm sense of her. It didn’t help that there were parts about her character that made me frown. Like how she’s a naturally talented ballet dancer who gets all the lead roles because she’s just that awesome. Maybe this is only something that can be believed in fiction, but I have relatives who used to be ballet dancers. The idea that someone can become so good despite never practicing because she won the genetic lottery makes me squint. I get that there’s a degree of narrative unreliability in play, but I don’t think Vee’s perception of Ori is that far off in this regard.
I don’t know. I wanted to like Ori, but her character remains a cipher for so much of the novel. Perhaps that’s intentional. She’s a blank slate for Vee and then later for Amber. Someone who becomes the instrument of their wrath and sense of fairness. But because I didn’t really empathize with her character, despite what happened to her, that made the ending just sad for me rather than leaving me satisfied that justice had been done.
The Walls Around Us is a weird, little book. It has thriller trappings but proceeds with magical realism’s dreamlike pacing. Perhaps that’s where most of my dissatisfaction lies. Ghost story. Mystery. Thriller. It encompasses all these things and yet is none of them. C