Book Review: Unwind, by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is one of those books that, the longer you sit and think about it, the deeper it becomes. The basic premise upon which Shusterman founds his dystopian world is that a second American Civil War was fought over the pro-life/pro-choice debate. The horrible result is the compromise known as “unwinding.” Essentially, life is sacrosanct until age 13, at which point kids can be broken down into their component parts for use in transplants. It is every bit as disturbing as it sounds.
When I understood the magnitude of the situation, of what this meant for a society, my initial reaction was incredulity. Surely, humanity could never arrive at such a decision. But even before the thought had finished forming, I knew it was thin. We live in a fallen, broken world, where any atrocity is possible given the right set of circumstances. Had I not grown up with the existence of nuclear bombs or the Holocaust, I might have thought those impossible too. The plain truth is that it could happen. Such a war, such an agreement could exist, which makes this novel all the more heart-rending. Like the best authors, Shusterman presents a story which inevitably leads the reader to question their own beliefs and assumptions.
This depth of field, ultimately, operates in the background of a very fine character-driven story. Connor, Risa, and Lev are fully realized and distinctly written. They are all struggling to come to terms with the various roads which led them to unwinding, as well as the startlingly mature question of what they will become in the time they have left. There are many adults, myself included, that would likely shut down in a similar situation. The fact that Shusterman has his leads constantly evolving as people in a life of unsure length keeps his book from falling into an action-driven shallowness.
To be sure, there is plenty of action and intrigue throughout, but it acts in support of the story; it is not, in and of itself, the story. Shusterman’s prose is so unobtrusive that it’s nearly transparent. There are sections of the book which almost seem to appear before you, unfolding without aid of the words. This is most powerfully true in the scene in which one of the characters is actually unwound. Shusterman forces the reader through the entire process, keeping the focus tight to the unwind. Without question or hyperbole, it is the most disturbing, chilling passage I have ever read. That experience alone is worth the price of admission, but, fortunately, the book is much bigger than even this.