by Neal Shusterman

A Review by Scott finished May 18, 2010

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

I would like to evaluate this book in terms of themes and ideas on one hand, and actual literary skill and composition on the other. First, this is a fascinating concept that does an excellent job of bring the issues surrounding abortion to light. I feel Shusterman does an excellent job of handling this delicate issue without preaching towards a particular agenda. Ultimately, his message is that whether life starts at conception, or at birth, there can be no doubt that life itself is a precious thing. By having the "death" or Unwinding occur at the age of reason, it puts it sharply in focus what a despicable act it is. In fact, the scene where Roland is being unwound is extremely disturbing and, for a young adult, nightmare inducing.

I appreciated Shusterman's willingness to approach this subject without obviously choosing a side. In fact, when characters discuss the issue of when life begins (a very brief discussion), each side is taken by different characters and not resolution is attempted. It's simply accepted that people have different opinions on the matter.

Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the depth to which Shusterman developed a world in which Unwinding was a common practice. Not only was there Unwinding itself, but he also added in things like Storking, the way state homes would deal with children (i.e. only keeping those with the most skills/promise to add to society), Tithing, the legend of Humphrey Dunfee, Clappers (a society that demeans life so much would probably lead to such a bitter, cruel, spiteful form of protest), and even the consistency of adult characters simply accepting that Unwinding isn't really death, but just a different state of living. Outside of this culture it seems obviously ridiculous, but when you grow up being told something our whole life, it's hard to see things otherwise. Conceptually, Shusterman does a good job of capturing this.

My only complaints with the book are not with its ideas, but with the writing itself. Ultimately, Shusterman's writing is just passable. There isn't beauty or subtlety to it. The characters have different characteristics and motives, but they feel flat otherwise. This is especially relevant, and evident, considering the structure of the book. Each chapter is titled based on the character (Connor, Risa, etc.) or group (Unwinds, etc.) it follows. However, in spite of this, the tone and style of each chapter is exactly the same. Connor chapters aren't written to illicit the powerful will and anger that accompanies Connor, nor are the Roland chapters written in such a way to capture his manipulative, power hungry nature. They all feel the same, which is a huge let down, especially since it is core to the structure of the book.

The lack of greatness in the writing is amplified by the difficulty of the subject matter, and the cleverness in the ideas and depth of the world that Shusterman created. Had the writing shown the same level of skill as the ideas that are present in the book, this would be much easier to recommend. As it is, however, I do not recommend this book unless you are specifically looking for something to help broach the subject of abortion with a young adult. If you are just looking to recommend a young adult something that is entertaining and full of great writing, there are numerous other books to choose from (Harry Potter, Ender's Game, and the The Hunger Games all come to mind).

As an aside, the moments where Roland was building power, being manipulative, and Connor was trying to combat him reminded me a lot of Ender's Game. It wasn't as good, but it seemed very similar and I wouldn't be surprised if it was inspired by Ender.

Another aside. I was, coincidentally, just informed about Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal" in which he satirically claims that the Irish can deal with their poverty problem by having the children of the poor eaten, but not until they are 1 year of age. This is disturbing, of course, but the connections between this satire, and Unwind should be quite apparent. Both are meant to shed light on the true worth of a person by suggesting a disturbing "dismantling" at an age when there can be no doubt that it is the wrong thing to do. Furthermore, in both cases, the dismantling is considered a good thing because it serves to improve the rest of society as a whole. Even the extent to which Swift relates how his proposal will result in a booming economy for Ireland is consistent with how Unwinding became such big business in Shusterman's work. Additionally, Swift claims that it would be better for someone to be sold as food, and to help the nation, than to live a miserable life in much the same way it is claimed in Unwind that it is better to be a part of greatness than to be entirely worthless.

In a way, Unwind serves as a modern take on Swift's proposal, but it assumes that the proposal was accepted (in spite of the original proposer's attempt to shock the audience). This is consistent with how the Admiral relates that the military meant to shock the two sides of the war into realizing how terrible their fighting was, but did not expect them to actually accept the proposal. I wish I still had a copy of the book to check this with, but I wonder if the Admiral refers to this suggestion as a "modest proposal" as an intentional reference to this essay. It would not surprise me considering the similarities.

Originally Published Jan. 1, 2007

Hardcover edition:

335 pages - Feb. 9, 2009

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