Background: I've been wanting to read Unwind ever since both Sherry Early and Abby (the) Librarian recommended it for my list of futuristic, speculative, science fiction or dystopian fiction titles aimed at young adults. I finally got my act together to request it from the library last week. And I read it in one sitting.
Review: Neal Shusterman's Unwind is a thought-provoking dystopian science fiction story for young adults. The premise is that after a second civil war in the United States over abortion rights, the Heartland War, a settlement has been reached. Under the settlement, abortion is completely illegal. However, parents have the option to have children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen "unwound". Unwinding involves breaking up the teen for parts, and donating virtually all of their organs to other people. The justification for unwinding is that if all of the parts are transferred to other human beings, then the teen isn't dead - just unwound into a new and different existence. The unwinding process is ritualized and mythologized to make it more acceptable to people (reminding me a bit of The Handmaid's Tale). But at its core, the process is about money -- body parts being a valuable commodity.
Unwind is told from the shifting perspectives of three teens, all slated to be unwound. Connor is a bit of troublemaker, and his parents decide that it's easier to get rid of him. Risa is an orphan living in a state home, put up for unwinding because of budget cuts. Lev, in contrast, grew up in a loving home, but is being unwound as part of his parents' religion (under which one of every ten children is a "tithe" to society). Through a series of circumstances (and Connor's bold action), the three teens find themselves on the run together, dodging the Juvey-cops, looking for a safe haven from a society that wants them unwound.
Unwind is a book that will make readers think. About when life begins and ends, what gives a life meaning, and the consequences to society of cheapening life. Shusterman doesn't come down on any one side - this no moral spoon-feeding - but he does use the premise of the novel to explore these questions in detail. Having a variety of viewpoint characters helps, too, since the characters have different answers to the questions. All of this questioning takes place in a fast-paced, suspenseful package that will keep readers turning the pages.
Reading the book, I wasn't sure what to think of some of the characters, or who to trust. Even the primary characters, the two boys anyway, are complex. Connor is the hero, a reluctant leader who loses his temper easily, and sometimes makes decisions rashly. He probably has ADHD. Lev, raised to know all his life that he's expected to be unwound, is fanatical, bitter, angry, and yet surprisingly loyal. Risa is a bit more idealized. She is the book's moral center, and the one who sees power dynamics the most clearly. There's also an intriguing character named CyFi introduced later in the book, but to discuss him at all would be a spoiler. Here again, the shifting viewpoints help, giving the reader different perspectives on the characters.
Here are a few quotes, to give you more of a feel for the book:
"Connor wonders how he can call the place he lives home, when he's about to be evicted--not just from the place he sleeps, but from the hearts of those who are supposed to love him." (Page 5)
"Deeper in the woods a girl sits up against a tree, holding her arm, grimacing in pain. He doesn't have time for this, but "Protect and Serve" is more than just a motto to him. He sometimes wishes he didn't have such moral integrity." (Page 39. This passage is noteworthy because the 'he" in question is a Juvey-cop, someone who chases down runaway teens, and delivers them for unwinding. I liked the understated irony.)
"These two Unwinds are out of control. He no longer fears that they'll kill him, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous. They need to be protected from themselves. They need ... they need ... they need to be unwound. Yes. That's the best solution for these two. They're of no use to anyone in their current state, least of all themselves. It would probably be a relief for them, for now they're all broken up on the inside. Better to be broken up on the outside instead. That way their divided spirits could rest, knowing that their living flesh was spread around the world, saving lives, making other people whole. Just as his own spirit would soon rest." (Page 68, Lev)
So what we have here is a book in my favorite sub-genre, dystopian young adult fiction, one that kept me guessing all the way to the end, and then had me thinking about the issues the next day. That makes Unwind a winner in my book. I'd give this one to fans of The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, The Declaration and The Resistance by Gemma Malley, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's also a book that fans of Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series will enjoy when they get older, though I wouldn't offer it to middle grade readers (there's an unwind sequence that is particularly disturbing). Recommended, for teens and adults.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: November 2007 (paperback due out June 2, 2009)
Source of Book: Library copy
Other Blog Reviews: Among many others: Library Ninja, the Book Nest, 3 Evil Cousins, Reading and Breathing, and Abby (the) Librarian. Abby also linked to "reviews at Ms. Yingling Reads, Becky's Book Reviews, Oops...Wrong Cookie, and Buried in the Slush Pile."
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© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.