There is something about ballerinas that inspires horror. At least, pop culturally, anyway. If you haven't seen Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky 2010), or Suspiria (Dario Argento 1977), or even The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger 1948) then, first of all, you're really missing out and, second of all, the horror of ballet might never have occurred to you. All those tiny women with their bird bones and frilly tutus might seem downright delicate. But, what lies beneath all that beauty and delicacy is a lot of sweat and back-breaking hard work and, apparently, neurosis.
I once knew a woman who had, in a past life, been a ballet dancer. She was - to put it mildly - competitive.
She loved to tell stories of the ways that girls would try to sabotage one another backstage, during rehearsals, even in the midst of a performance. It is, it seems, a very jealous, physically crippling field. If athletes become brothers (or sisters), then ballerinas become enemies. At least, that's how I understand it. I can't speak from experience.
Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us is only partly about ballerinas and ballet. Still, that bloody, backstabbing world seeps into every part of the novel. Ostensibly, The Walls Around Us is the story of Orianna Spearling (Ori), a former ballerina whose incarceration in a juvenile detention facility called Aurora Hills is cut short by a gruesome tragedy.
Suma is an elegant writer. She balances believable teenage voices with a crisp, poetic rhythm. The language of this novel is, by turns, grotesquely beautiful and surprisingly sharp. The novel divides itself between two narrators: Ashley (Ori's cellmate at Aurora Hills) and Vee (Ori's former best friend and fellow ballerina). Though these two couldn't have less in common - excepting, of course, Ori - their narratives cross the same path on multiple occasions and in surprising ways.
Underlying the narrators' two threads (Ashley's daily survival in Aurora Hills, Vee's plans to attend Julliard and leave her past behind) is also a ghost story. I know what you're thinking: too much. Somehow, though, it isn't! The ghost story is what weaves the threads together into the final blanket narrative. There are questions about justice and the complicated bonds formed by young women in impossible circumstances. In the outside world, friends are compelled to betray one another and to kill. Inside the prison, friends are compelled to help one another and to support. The reality of The Walls Around Us is topsy-turvy. In the end, though, what makes this such a lovely story is the idea that although she is doomed, Ori is a truly good person. She's not angelic or untarnished. She's not perfect. She is, however, someone who can see the good in everyone. She is someone who wants to enjoy the good in everyone. It is her sweetness, her kindness, and her generosity that ensure she gets justice...even if no one else can be spared.
I would recommend this novel to teens and adults who enjoy a little magical realism, ballet, true crime, ghost stories, or suspense. The publisher has marketed this book as Orange is the New Black Swan (which is almost too clever), but I think that speaks to the kind of reader who will find this novel endearing.
If you enjoyed any of these, you will probably enjoy The Walls Around Us:
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver
They All Fall Down by Roxanne St. Clair
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
The End or Something Like That by Ann Dee Ellis
Teen Spirit by Francesca Lia Block