The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. | My copy: egalley, 319 pages, Algonquin Young Readers, releases March 24th, 2015. | Source: the publisher via NetGalley. | View on Goodreads here.
The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.
We hear Amber’s story and Violet’s, and through them Orianna’s, first from one angle, then from another, until gradually we begin to get the whole picture—which is not necessarily the one that either Amber or Violet wants us to see.
Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.
The Walls Around Us was just not the book for me. I was very disappointed by it. I didn’t find it interesting until the “big reveal” (which was on page 269, where I remarked on Goodreads: “And… that is pretty much what I guarantee is the best part of the book, ladies and gentlemen. Was it worth 250+ pages just to read “what actually happened”? I dunno. The book is still not over.”), and I had no enthusiasm for the plot or the characters or the setting. (By page 53 I remarked: “Everything’s so grim and unhappy. And I’m not yet hooked. Hoping it gets more interesting soon.” And by page 157 I remarked: “I’m roughly halfway through this mess and I’m barely interested. I think I’m going to plow through to the end, though, because I absolutely hate quitting books.”) I was initially excited due to the pretty cover, the fact that people have compared it to Black Swan, and that it’s marketed as “supernatural”. Well. Well, well, well. The only good thing about this book is, in my opinion, the writing. Nova Ren Suma’s prose is beautiful, so vivid and descriptive. (By page 169 I remarked: “One good thing the book’s got going for it is the vivid imagery/writing. But the plot? The characters? I really don’t care. I’m actually kinda skimming the book by now…”)
The biggest problem I had with this novel was the factual errors about ballet. I am a dancer and used to dance very seriously en pointe. In this day and age where you can find everything you need to know about anything on the internet, it really shouldn’t be that hard to fact-check dance terminology, traditions, and basic safety. To have so many inaccuracies is 1) annoying for readers who actually know things about ballet (like me), and 2) bad for readers who don’t know anything about ballet because it’ll give them the wrong impression. Really, I was very upset about the poor editing for something so obvious as ballet, which isn’t obscure in the slightest. So, here we go: where I set things straight and tell you what is right and what isn’t.
As per my Goodreads reading progress updates, here’s what I’ve got to say:
Ok, I’m a dancer. And let me point out three glaring errors in Chapter Two:
- Dancers don’t say “break a leg”, we say “merde”. [Yup, French for s***. Go figure. The story behind that is complicated.] Telling a dancer to break a leg is a horrendous no-no.
- No sane 17-year-old would ever have their mom still sewing ribbons on their pointe shoes. Sewing your own shoes comes with the job of being a dancer; it’s a rite of passage and something very personal. [Personal as in you’re the only one who can actually feel where the best place to sew the ribbons is. Also, most ballet dancers sew on an elastic band, too, for extra support. But that’s not mentioned here…]
- You should never put all your weight “on a single toe”. For a dancer, this is very dangerous, especially en pointe. If you’re balancing on your big toe or little toe, it’s very easy for your ankle to roll in or out, respectively. You want to put your weight over your second toe, which will spread [aka distribute] your weight throughout all your toes.
This is Chapter 2; my eyebrows are up to my hairline.
And there’s more:
Oh, honey, you don’t tie the knot of your pointe shoe ribbons in the back, you knot them on the inside of your ankle, right by your ankle bone. Making the knot by your Achilles, right above your heel, would be harmful. Where was the editor for this basic ballet fact? Tsk-tsk. [Seriously, though, this book needed to be looked over by a dancer.]
Ok, these inaccurate ballet technicalities are giving me high blood pressure and I’m seriously considering if I even want to finish the book now… There have been two more errors I’ve found:
- “I know they’re hers because of the initials marked on the inside of the satin sheath.” [page 92 of my egalley] I’m assuming the author means the inside of the shoe itself, where it’s logical and quite common to write one’s initials. But “sheath” is not an actual pointe shoe term, and if it is, I certainly have never heard of it. [I actually asked a friend of mine who is a ballet dancer and she said she’d never heard the term “sheath” before. So I’m not crazy. “Sheath” is not a term we use for pointe shoes.] And: “That’s what it says on the satin.” [page 92] Meaning, [in the story,] the initials [are written on the satin]. Only there IS NO satin on the inside of a pointe shoe. The fabric is actually two layers: the outside [is] satin, the inside [is] canvas. And no one in their right mind would actually write on the satin itself for the world to see.
- The method of cutting one’s pointe shoe shank is explained here, only it’s explained inaccurately. It’s said that cutting them “give the shoes new life” and how “real-live ballerinas” — as opposed to real-DEAD ballerinas?! — “adjust their shoes so they can use them for longer.” [page 92] Actually, dancers cut their shanks to better fit the shoes to their feet [usually for desired strength of arch support], not to make them last longer. And… There is absolutely no mention of the legendary, life-saving and life-enhancing JET GLUE that all dancers who wear pointe shoes learn about ASAP. Jet glue is what “give the shoes new life”. Gluing pointe shoes is pretty much the only trick to making them last longer. Jet glue dries super-duper hard and is a gift from the gods. However, the author seems to not have heard of it… [My eyebrows are up again. Because every dance store/outlet sells jet glue. Ballet dancers walk around with a bottle of the stuff in their bag. It’s that powerful and magical and amazing.]
And more! This is the last bit about inaccurate ballet facts:
Not an error, but something mentioned in passing that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense: The only way to join the New York City Ballet is by going through [as in training in] their company affiliated school [the School of American Ballet]. And I don’t think these girls in the book study at the School of American Ballet, so it wouldn’t even be possible for them to think they’d have a shot at getting into the company. [NYCB is only one of many incredible ballet companies in the country. I am surprised it was the only company mentioned in the whole book.]
Okay. So. I’m pretty much done. This book really frustrated me. Pretty much all my overall thoughts were in the first paragraph, and then I just got nitpick-y about the ballet facts. But this is important stuff, and it’s important to get facts right! The Walls Around Us was a strange ride with an interesting but confusing ending that I overall didn’t find enjoyable. You can’t love ’em all, huh. ♦