Book Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)
In the near future, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate explodes into a war called the Heartland War. The only way the war could reach a peace was to come to an agreement. There would be no abortion but when children are between the ages of 13 and 17 their parents can sign an order to have them unwound. New scientific technology allows doctors to transplant all of a person’s body parts. They will then “live on” in a “divided state.” Teens whose parents choose to sign an unwind order for them are rounded up by juvie cops and brought to Harvest Camps to await their fate. Some families, particularly from fundamentalist branches of all faiths, believe in tithing 10% of their children, and will have a child simply to raise them to be a tithe. Additionally, many children end up unwanted and living in State Homes, where they are all given the last name of Ward–for ward of the state.
Connor is a light-hearted bad boy who just accidentally found his own unwind orders in his parents’ desk and immediately goes on the run. Lev is a tithe who is on his way to Harvest Camp. Risa is a ward of the state, and she is on a bus to be unwound, because she isn’t deemed exceptional enough to justify her upkeep. A series of events throws them into each other’s lives and leaves whether or not they will be unwound in question.
This was recommended to me years ago, but when I first read the description I was skeptical that the book was anything but Pro-Life propaganda. Years later I decided to check it out again, and most reviews mentioned how neutral the book was. Additionally, I read some interviews with the author where he stated he genuinely was trying to present a neutral story that analyzes some tough questions, so I thought I would give it a shot. Ultimately, the author has succeeded at creating a future world that is fascinating to visit and that also analyzes medical ethics in a creative way. I would honestly say the book is much more about medical ethics, particularly in regards to transplants, than it really is about abortion rights.
The basic plot is that three very different teenagers are supposed to be unwound but then find themselves on the run instead of actually at Harvest Camp. The book is in the third person but from the limited perspective of one character, and that one character switches around. It is predominantly Connor, Risa, or Lev, but it is also sometimes someone like a juvie cop or a parent. Sometimes this narrative structure works really well, providing many different perspectives on the same event or issue. Other times it feels too contrived. The perspective switches at just the right moment to keep the reader in the dark, or to reveal something we wouldn’t otherwise know. Sometimes this structure builds suspense and other times it kind of ruins it. Overall, though, I enjoyed the structure and found that the multiple perspectives really added to the world and the story.
This narrative structure is enhanced by clippings from real, modern-day newspaper articles and blogs, as well as fake advertisements and news from the future the book is set in. Partially due to the Audible narrator, who did a fantastic job at the ads, I really enjoyed these snippets of media from the future. They are very tongue-in-cheek and adult, but will still appeal to teens reading the book for their over-the-topness. I found the modern day news articles to be less interesting, and mostly felt a bit like scare mongering. They read as a bit heavy-handed in pushing the “this could really happen!” angle.
I did find it a bit frustrating that all three of the main characters are white and straight. While it is acknowledged that a few people (primarily adults) could be GLBTQ, the assumed norm is straight and cis, no matter what social organization is in control. Whether it’s mainstream society, rebels, or anyone in-between. The norm is always straight cis. Similarly, while the author does include non-white people to a much greater degree than non-straight/non-cis people (there are a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented in the society), they are all secondary characters. One thing that really stuck out to me was that at one point in the book we meet a Chinese-American girl who is being unwound because her parents wanted a son, and they just kept trying until they got one and then picked a daughter to unwind, because they couldn’t afford all the kids. She’s also got an interesting punk aesthetic to her. What an interesting main character she would have been! Can you imagine her in the role of Connor? They are both running away from being unwound, and she could easily have taken that main character role. It just bothers me when a book has three main characters who are all in a similar situation due to society-wide problems, and yet they are so non-diverse, with just a nod at gender by having one female character.
With regards to the female character, Risa, I must say I was very disappointed to have one plot point be an attempted rape of her, and her then being saved by a male character. First, we only get one female main character and then she naturally is almost raped. Then naturally she must be saved by someone else. The whole scene sickened me, especially when I thought about teen girls reading it. It was just a completely unnecessary plot point. I once read an article that talked about how often rape scenes (or attempted rape scenes) are a sign of lack of creativity. I don’t think all of them are, but this one certainly came across that way. Unnecessary and a convenient plot point without thought to how it would affect the readers.
In spite of these characterization and style complaints though, the plot is very good, and the world is fascinating. Characters in a natural manner talk about and explore the ethics of life, when life begins, and who has the right to life, as well as who has the right to end it. The plot is fast-paced, and I read as quickly as I could to find out what happened. There are also a couple of twists at the end that rocked my socks off and left me immediately downloading the next book in the series.
All of that said, I have a few questions about the world that were never addressed. First, if everyone who is unwound is between the ages of 13 and 17, how does that work out with transplantation? People have not yet finished growing at 17, especially their minds. Does this mean a 67 year old woman would have a 15 year old’s arm if she needed a transplant? If so, that sounds very grotesque to me, and I wonder how society has learned to deal with something so mis-matched. This isn’t particularly addressed, except to say that sometimes it’s weird to look at someone with two eyes that don’t match. Similarly, the world at large isn’t really talked about at all. The kids who are trying to escape being unwound don’t even consider running into another country but they never explain why. How has the world at large reacted to the United States’ new law? Is there any country that would be a safe-haven for unwinds? Are there other countries following suit? The international impact is woefully underaddressed.
In spite of these various shortcomings, the plot and the world still sucked me in. It was a quick read that left me wanting more.
Overall, fans of dystopian ya looking for another series to whet their appetite will definitely enjoy this one. It’s a completely different dystopia from most of the ones that are already big, and I am sure YA readers who are currently teens themselves will find the idea of their parents being able to sign an unwind order on them chilling. Dystopian YA fans should definitely give this one a go.
4 out of 5 stars