One distinct descriptor adorns almost all Kirkus reviews of Nova Ren Suma’s intense, intelligent YA novels—and that’s “creepy.”
“I don’t necessarily realize how scary some of my books are,” Suma says. “I’ll get readers who say, ‘Oh, I had a nightmare,’ ‘I was so scared,’ ‘I was up late at night,’ and I’m like, really? I’m writing about what scares me, but in putting it on the page I’m facing it down. I don’t realize it’s creepy until other people tell me—it’s really funny to know Kirkus has said it three times.”
In Suma’s case, horrific is an honorific. She’s earned an MFA from Columbia University and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, MacDowell and Yaddo. She teaches YA novel writing at prestigious programs including Djerassi Writes. And both Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone werenamed 2014 Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners by YALSA.
Her frightening follow-up, The Walls Around Us, is set in New York state and narrated by two girls from different worlds: Amber is a teenage inmate at Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center far upstate. Violet is an accomplished young ballerina preparing for her first semester at Juilliard. At least one is guilty of an unspeakable crime. One of them is dead.
“I wanted to explore characters who do, quote, ‘bad things’—kind of inhabit their bodies, feel what that would be like—and also think about the consequences,” Suma says.
For Amber, incarcerated in the aftermath of an abusive stepfather’s death, the consequences are manifold. She has to share a cell with a sloppy girl named D’amour, eat putrid prison food and learn the difference between friend and foe.
“We were gasoline rushing for a lit match. We were bared teeth. Balled fists. A stampede of slick feet. We went wild, like anyone would. We lost our fool heads,” Suma writes of the day the locks fail, temporarily freeing the wild young women.
Fierce flailing escapees may not appear to have much in common with a company of coolly collected ballerinas. (For Violet, every movement is calculated and precise, down to the regimented eating on performance days—cheese cubes only.) But one girl passes between worlds: Orianna Catherine Speerling, Violet’s best friend and fellow ballerina, meets a tragic end as Aurora Hills’s 42nd inmate.
“Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me,” Suma writes.
Violet comes off as cold and casual in contrast to Amber, who wonders and empathizes.
“Imagine a person who still looks at you the way your mother used to, when you were little and two-braided and good. That was Orianna Speerling,” she writes.
Suma strove to maintain two distinct voices throughout—to the point of creating separate playlists to evoke different emotions while writing from each vantage. Amber, who read more, used more similes; Violet, more slang.
“Violet was a hard character to be in because she’s so selfish, so one-track minded, and can be heartless. Amber’s so much more compassionate—though I have to admit there was a bit of gleeful fun in writing Violet. She was just so awful sometimes: I’m at rehearsal, I’m eating my cheese, I’m doing this. There was a stream of consciousness in her voice that came out fast,” Suma says.
The fundamentals of the character’s life are rooted in her own: she grew up in the Hudson Valley, studied ballet until age 16 and still has the initialed toe shoes to prove it. While Violet came from a familiar place, the character pushed Suma’s imagination to the brink.
“One of the most shocking parts of writing The Walls Around Us was in the Violet section, when we find out what happens in the smoking tunnel. It’s very violent and detailed, and I didn’t anticipate how far I would go. Violet kind of took me over, and afterward I was stunned—did I just put that on paper?” she says.
Violet’s grisly disclosure could certainly give a reader nightmares or cause lost sleep. At the very least, it proves Amber’s observation: “...just because people on the outside were free and clean, it didn’t mean they were the good ones,” she writes.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.