Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Book Review: Unwind (Unwind #1, Neal Shusterman)

*This post is part of a joint effort by my friend Commander LilaJune and I to jumpstart our blogging and discipline ourselves to post regularly. She is writing her own review of Unwind as I write mine, and we are planning to post our reviews around the same time. We have more reviews and discussions planned down the road for this program -- so, yeah, you're free to badger me with comments if I don't keep my words!*

Cover picture taken from here

Synopsis (from Neal Shusterman's website):

In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would "unwind" them Connor's parents want to be rid of him because he's a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev's unwinding has been planned since his birth, as part of his family's strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can't be harmed -- but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, are wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away.

In UnwindBoston Globe/Horn Book Award winner Neal Shusterman challenges readers' ideas about life -- not just where life begins, and where it ends, but what it truly means to be alive.


Like many books in my recent reading list, Unwind came recommended by one of my reading and fangirling mates on Twitter. This time, the honour of ricocheting me straight into the erratic orbit of Neal Shusterman's insane world goes to the goddy amazing young lady called Sofia, who blogs *regularly* (looking nervously at self) about books at Loving The Language of Literacy. This well-read literacy warrior came to me with a shining recommendation for Unwind as I was wandering around looking for a good book to quench my thirst for breakneck speed and great plot. And, my, Unwind didn't disappoint. From the moment I picked it up and got sucked straight into the terrifying and very possible dystopian world, until the moment I put my e-reader down with my head in my hands, I was constantly impressed and wondering about what on the pages would happen a few screen-taps down the road. It was insanity at its best. And the best kind of insanity indeed.

The Summary According to Nath

As we've probably expected, 'Unwind' revolves around the idea of 'unwinding', which I would describe as a perfect yet morally-questionable solution to the pro-life and pro-choice battle, shortage of donor organs, and juvenile delinquency. In Connor, Risa, and Lev's dystopian world, pregnant women aren't allowed to abort, but can choose to leave their babies on someone's doorstep ('storking'). Parents can also opt to give their 13 to 18 year old teenagers up for government-sanctioned organ-harvesting ('unwinding'), for any reason and without consequences. The government presents the argument that once unwound, a child would continue to live through his or her organs which now provide life or a second chance for others in need -- in a 'divided state'. The main characters, Connor, Risa, and Lev are all slotted for unwinding, for various reasons. Hot-headed Connor, with his anger issues and penchant for troubles, was given away by the parents who didn't have any other way of dealing with his behaviours. Risa, an aspiring musician raised in an orphanage ('state home'), was sent away after failing to prove her worth to the government who needs reasons to keep supporting her welfare and education. And Lev, a boy from a religious family, was a 'tithe', a child born to be unwound as part of his wealthy parents' offering to their community and religion. These three teenagers meet each other as Connor tries escaping his Unwinding, unknowingly assisting Risa on his way and pulling Lev out of the path of voluntary unwinding. Through many misadventures and desperate attempts to stay alive and whole (for Connor and Risa) and to go back to his destiny (Lev), the three are forced to examine their lives and their choices, and see their world in a totally different way.

Plus Points

  1. Plot
    One of the many things Shusterman did amazingly with Unwind is, like I've mentioned, the idea and the plot. He was able to weave the three different story strands of the main characters into a solid, tight rope, using their strength, weaknesses, and inner demons to drive the plots. Despite the multiple supporting characters and switching POVs, the main focus remain on Connor, Risa, and Lev's stories. The three, especially Lev and (to some extent) Connor, go through massive journeys of self-discoveries, growing from children influenced fully by their environment and immediate problems to young adults who know the extent of their strengths and are able to use their skills to help teenagers facing the same injustice -- which is unwinding. I won't spoil the plot here, but let's just say there are so many clever character-driven twists in the story, and I'm happy with where the three are at the end of the book.
  2. Theme and Premise
    There are a lot of philosophical gems in this novel, and a lot of questions about humanity and morality. The main question here is, 'what makes a human, human?'. Through the main characters' thoughts, and heartbreaking stories of various side characters (CyFy, The Admiral, "Humphrey Dunfee", Emby aka The Mouth Breather), Shusterman presents the light and dark side of unwinding, which are so closely entwined to one another it is a blur. On one side, an organ might save a young child, a much-loved teenager, or an adult with a family and a lot of responsibilities. On the other side, the unloved, scraped teenager whom the organ came from, with their own memories and dreams and aspirations, is no less human than their recipients. What makes some lives more valuable than others? Is it true that 'unwinding' is the best thing the society could do to "incorrigible" teenagers? What has the 'convenient' notion of unwinding done to the society and the world? Has it fixed all the problems, or has it simply made people less forgiving and more ignorant? What would you do if a father or a mother change their mind and decide to forgive a teenager for his or her mistake or existence -- only to find out he or she has been unwound?
  3. Cast 'Diversity'
    Character-assemble wise, Unwind is diverse and clear. Diverse, in that we get to see characters with all sorts of different backgrounds (delinquents, state home children, tithes, supporters of unwinding, grieving parents who regret unwinding their children, people receiving parts from unwound children) and different stances regarding unwinding. Clear, in that the main characters' and the major secondary characters' motivations are laid out clearly throughout the story and are reasonable/logical. Despite the semi-colossal number of cast members, very few characters are one-off. They always make reappearance later (or in the later books, which I would talk about in separate posts), whether it is a full-blown appearance or a cameo. A handful of characters linger in my brain until long afterwards. I can't stay they stuck there -- at least yet, but I find myself thinking about them at times.

What Nath Thinks Could Be Improved

  • Deep Characterisation
    Due to the large cast list, everyone has got a limited 'page time' to explain themselves. Their pasts and motivations are well explained, but the 'little things' which make them more personable (as in their habits, favourite food, favourite colours, soft spot...) aren't as exposed. Coupled with the 3rd person POV, this makes the characters 'distant' -- easy to sympathise with but somewhat hard to identify with. The book would have been greater than it already is if, say, we get to know more sides of Connor, or Risa, or Lev.

  • Romance
    The romance between two of the major characters feels underdeveloped. It has a strong 'passing attraction' and a 'just-because' feel to it -- and even without it, the plot will still make a perfect sense. Perhaps this is intentional, and the romance is meant to be a 'side story' -- but to me this romance subplot just serves as a weak point for a strong book and I would prefer to see the book without it.

Overall Rating

4.8 out of 5 stars