Miriam Newman Young Adult Literature YA Lit for Adult Readers

There are two things about Unwind of which I am certain: it is extremely well written, and its premise has some holes. The holes don’t prevent it from being provocative and fascinating, though the brilliant writing does give an impression of better-developed characters than actually exist.

But I should explain.

In the near future, the United States undergoes an all-out civil war between the pro-lifers on the one hand, the pro-choicers on the other, and the remains of the army trying to restoring order on the third hand. (Don’t like having three hands? Keep reading.) The eventual settlement: life is sacred, but a pregnancy could be retroactively terminated once the result reached the age of reason – thirteen, though once they become an adult at eighteen, they cannot be unwound. The unwanted is the taken apart – Unwound – and at least 99.44% (you have to take into account things like the appendix) of the body being used for transplants – kept alive in a divided state, or so the reasoning goes.

Our protagonists are three Unwinds – Connor has gotten into a few too many fights, Risa is a ward of the state whom the state has decided is no longer useful, and Lev is a tithe: the tenth child of a religious family, conceived and raised for the purpose of being Unwound. The three take us on a whirlwind tour of tithing parties, kicking-AWOL, the underground Unwind railroad, and, finally, a Harvesting Camp. (Yes, he goes there. For four pages, he breaks from the dark, twisted dystopian writing for in favor of out-and-out horror. In his defense, the book he was writing didn’t give him much choice. And for all its flaws, I do think it was a book worth writing.)

The writing is tight and fast, keeping you enthralled, but it’s a better book while you’re reading it than after you’re finished. As I thought back on it, I started to notice that the characters weren’t really fleshed out or developed; the main three had just enough personality to keep them from caricature, and (almost) everyone else had such a brief appearance that I didn’t notice till afterwards that they had all been catalysts or plot points, rather than people. Likewise, while I was willing to suspend disbelief for the premise as a whole – and he does a better job of making that possible than I expected – afterward, I started wondering about practicalities, like, is there really equal demand for every part of the body (minus the appendix)? There seem to be more male Unwinds than female; really? is that throwing off the genderbalance of the adult population? What are the depression rates like in this world, both for teenagers and for parents who signed unwinding orders?

Unwind has moments of striking profundity – and I do mean that as a compliment this time – and moments of surprising gentleness. It asks rarely-asked questions about life, the soul, and morality. Unfortunately, impressions of the horror linger longer than they do, and the questions which replace that are of a far more mundane variety.