Tournament of Books Round 1: The Walls Around Us vs. Calvin

Okay. For round one, I read Calvin by Martine Leavitt and The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Having never read anything by these authors before, I felt ecstatic going into this round. The only preconceived notions I could form about either book was what their dust jacket divulged. And I’ll be honest. I started reading with a huge bias towards Calvin.

Calvin is about a high sccalvinhool boy named Calvin whose sleeping schizophrenia has awakened. As Calvin is lying in bed, procrastinating and worrying about not graduating, he hears the voice of Hobbes the tiger from the classic comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes! Calvin blames this on his imagination, but the next day when Hobbes refuses to leave, and a doctor diagnosis him after an episode in school, Calvin decides this is real and medication cannot help him. You see, Calvin was born on the day that the last Calvin & Hobbes strip was published, toted around a stuffed tiger called Hobbes as a kid, and even has a best friend named Susie. This strong universal tie between Calvin and the comic’s creator Bill Watterson leaves Calvin with one conclusion: to rid himself of his Hobbes delusion, he must get Watterson to write one last strip with Calvin sane and free of imaginary Hobbes. As a grand gesture, Calvin embarks on a quest across a frozen great lake, with Susie, to meet Watterson, retrieve the strip, and regain his sanity.

The Walls Around Us is the story of a dark secret, its unraveling, and sweet justice needing to be served. The story is told by two different characters. Amber is a teen locked away in Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for a violent crime. Violet is an aspiring ballerina poised to start Julliard. Then there is Ori, who we never hear from directly, but who we learn about from the stories being told by Amber and Violet. Ori is really at the center of this book, even if her point of view is non-existent. But how are these worlds connected? Simple. Violet’s friend Ori was convicted of murdering Violet’s bullies and then sent to Aurora Hills where she met Amber. Now here’s where it gets tricky. The time lines for Violet and Amber are not the same, and Ori is dead, so a supernatural element begins to unfurl to further bridge the gap between the worlds of Violet and Amber. In the midst of characters sharing more of themselves with us (this book is driven more by character study than plot), and delving into the truth behind Ori’s imprisonment and death, Violet decides to visit Aurora Hills years after Ori’s death. Everything then collides for an explosive ending.

Both of these novels were good. No question. But both had their flaws. To begin, Calvin had an immediately engaging premise, humor throughout, a quirky setting, a good theme of friendship, and a QUEST! The structure of the book aided with establishing Hobbes as his own character, making the delusion real for readers (dialogue is displayed in script format). But that’s where it ended for me. The story always felt like it was lacking. We are given these insightful, philosophical monologues/dialogues about life and the brain, but I felt that they were more of a blatant attempt to create the “deep, precocious, old-soul” archetype than anything else (which, frankly, I’m bwalls around usored with). Hobbes could have been so much more of a force, but ultimately amounted to no more than a jester. And yeah, the ending is supposed to be symbolic of Calvin saying goodbye to Hobbes and him owning his mental illness, yet I could not shake that Calvin was mostly moving forward because of his extreme guilt he felt for nearly killing Susie on the frozen lake and for his love of her.   Which left me feeling unsatisfied with the ending. Did Calvin learn anything? It also is bizarre that such a self-aware, precocious teen is primarily taking his meds and going to school because his girlfriend Susie makes him and not because of an epiphany of self-realization. Ultimately, this was a good read, but very disappointing.

However, The Walls Around Us truly surprised me. The dust jacket left me flabbergasted over what the novel was even about. I couldn’t help but think this was going to be a Black Swan wannabe. But I was captivated by Suma’s beautiful writing, the themes of friendship/justice/appearances, the unflinching look at the damaging effects of bullying, the book’s originality, and Suma’s mastery of creating atmosphere. I will admit, while reading and piecing together the story, I was initially annoyed by the presence of the supernatural element—it appears tossed in for effect, with no purpose, until you get to the last few chapters. Also, Violet’s cold, privileged demeanor was hard to stomach. Necessary, but sometimes hard to read because the whole time I kept wondering why someone as kind and good as Ori would waste her time with someone like Violet. Furthermore, while I love how the loose bits and elements tied together in the end, I did not like the very last chapter and the “twist” ending. The author simply pushed my suspension of disbelief too far; I refuse to believe that ghosts tied to a very specific moment in time and place can have such overreaching powers to make that ending possible. Overall, this is a slow-burner of a novel with a fast-paced, huge ending that unites all of these elements you might have been questioning during the course of reading.

The winner? The Walls Around Us for its originality, beautiful writing, and unwillingness to avoid the dark.


Reviewed by Lisa Schemensky, Alpha Park Public Library


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