Unwind by Neal Shusterman

“One thing you learn when you’ve lived as long as I have —

people aren’t all good, and people aren’t all bad.

We move in and out of darkness and light all of our lives.

Right now, I’m pleased to be in the light”

Unwind has one of the most upsetting premises of any book that I have recently read: post birth abortions called unwinding. That’s not to say that kids fighting to the death, the government secretly poisoning its citizens, or surgically removing humans’ ability to love is not scary, it’s more that I have heard about this idea in our current society.  It’s easier to accomplish.

In this world created by Neil Shushterman, if a parents or guardians decides that they no longer want to care for their child before the child turns eighteen, they can have him/her unwound. The child’s body is taken apart and used as donor parts for people who need organs, limbs, anything. The families are told that the child doesn’t really die because he lives on as part of all the people he has helped live. Abortion as we know it is not allowed; however, the parent may choose to unwind the child between thirteen and eighteen.

“…a parent may choose to retroactively ‘abort’ a child…on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t ‘technically’ end. The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding.'”

The book follows three major characters. Connor is a sixteen year old rebellious child, always causing trouble.  He just discovered his parents are having him unwound, then taking his younger on a trip to the Bahamas the next day. So he decides to run away.  If he can make it to his eighteenth birthday, he is considered safe. Risa is an orphan, a ward of the state. She has spent her time focused on becoming a concert pianist, but she’s not the best. Because prebirth abortions are no longer permitted, there are many unwanted children being born and the orphanages are busy. Risa is told that she doesn’t have anything worthwhile to contribute to society and will just be a burden on the state. She too, is going to be unwound.

Lastly we have Lev. While he is also scheduled to be unwound, his story is very different. He comes from a very religious family who follows the tradition of tithing, giving back ten percent of everything you have to God. Since Lev is the tenth child, it was determined from the time his mother was pregnant that he would be unwound. He is treated very well and even thrown a lavish party to celebrate his upcoming tithing. These children are treated like saints.  On his way to his unwinding, he crosses paths with the runaways Risa and Connor, who “rescue” him from his family.  Now the three of them are AWOL.  They meet other kids who are also AWOL and people who are willing to help them.

Shusterman does a great job alternating the third person limited point of view between Connor, Risa, and Lev mostly, but every once in awhile choosing to show the perspective of minor characters.  Shusterman’s prose is not flowery; it is straight forward and poignant.  It is beautiful in its brusqueness.   He shows the anger and fear of his characters in a way that sticks with you and makes your heart ache for them, even months after you are finished reading the book.

There are a few scenes that are extremely powerful.  In one chapter, Shusterman gives the reader an unwinding through the eyes of the kid being unwound.  The child is kept alive the entire time knowing what is coming next.  It was very difficult to read emotionally.  More than once I wanted to skip to the end of it, but it’s so powerful I couldn’t put it down.  This scene gives this character such depth.  And I think that’s Shusterman’s gift in this book, his characterization.   His characters are complicated people with many layers.  The pain these kids feel is so realistic it resonates deep within the reader.  And like the quote I began with says, they are not entirely good, but they are not entirely bad either.

This book is about many things, one being love.  These kids are scared, angry, and sad because their parents gave up on them and sent them away to be taken apart.  The people who are supposed to love and protect them are the ones sending them to their deaths.  The unwinding process is so cold and clinical.  Now, as well as trying to survive, they are trying to find someone who loves them.  They are looking for acceptance and for another human to think of them as worthy of life.  This book is also about making hard decisions and living with the consequences of those choices, the guilt that may never go away.  And for some, trying to make it right.

This is a book that I would read again and recommend for others to read.  Unwind is the first in a series, but it’s a great story by itself.  It sets you up for another story while giving the reader a sense of closure on the first part.  Unwholly is set to come out around August of 2012.   I am looking forward to reading it.

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