Unwind by Neal Shusterman
First Note: In my opinion, this was an incredible novel and an important one, too. But this is not a novel that I think would be as appreciated by younger audiences. I first tried to read this at probably 16 and I really didn’t like it, nor did I “get” it. However, now, being 20, this read was really good. So for heavy themes, I would recommend it only to more mature readers.
Content (some spoilers): I was pleasantly surprised by how clean this novel was—save some disturbing scenes having to do with unwinding, but even those were not graphic or gory, and in fact they were worse because of how much was left unsaid, for I was forced to come up with my own rendering which horrified me. Generally, the author has mastered the art of saying less to say more. There were maybe a few instances of d**n but nothing more. Risa and Connor fall in love, but nothing happens beyond kissing and even that is described little. There are a few references to sex—for example, a guide in Risa and Connor’s lives assumes them to be a couple and encourages them to get pregnant to give Risa nine months without worrying about Unwinding, and Roland, the bully (*who we actually come to care about), threatens Risa in a bathroom.
Review: This book disturbed me. It horrified me. But in the same way, it stuck with me, its questions turning in my head. Though I will add a disclaimer that I already had a firm grasp on where I stood regarding the issues this book brought up—I am a follower of Jesus, and I firmly believe that we are all handcrafted in His image, carefully created, beautifully made, from the moment we come into existence, and thereof there is no point where we ‘gain’ a soul; that would make us animals at one point in our life, and I believe we are created higher than animals.
What I think I loved most about this book is its lack of agenda. This book deals with hard issues. Complex issues. Deep, messy issues. But instead of telling the reader what to believe, the author beautifully disappears, and all you are left with is the opportunity to watch some very real, very broken, very authentic humans live their way of life. So while I do disagree with some of the characters’ viewpoints on things, that cannot solely be a reason to dislike a book, for the same reason that disagreeing with a friend does not mean it is necessary to leave that friendship. This book showed us a tale of just humans being humans, our brokenness, and our innate longing for something more, our desire for hope. And that is enough to make a book worth reading.
As for the plot line itself, I didn’t find it incredibly compelling, but it was enough to keep me reading. I feel a few sections could have been shorter, but overall, not many complaints in that area. The third-person present did get confusing to read at times, but again, nothing too difficult.
There were quite a cast of characters, and it was pretty easy keeping them straight. I really liked Connor and his character arc. Risa was also cool. And Lev, too. I loved what the author did with each character’s individual growth and impact on the rest of the story. They are strong but also broken, but what inspires you is their ability to keep walking, to look forward, to challenge the status quo, to go against expectations. (Lev in the end—phenomenal.) Seeing these characters rise to the occasion and find their passions, and then go after them with everything in them, was so inspiring.
But my ultimate favorite scene—sorry, new readers, you don’t get to read it because it’s so spoilery—is in the end,
(Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!)
when Lev is imprisoned and chained up after deciding not to blow up the harvest camp. (I squirm even writing those words.) Pastor Dan comes to talk to him—the guy who formerly was a pinnacle in his faith journey and who talked him up on how being a tithe was so wonderful. Lev is startled that his pastor is acting different and not dressed up. I’m quoting the rest:
” [Pastor Dan] takes a moment before he answers. ‘I resigned my position. I left the church.’
The thought of Pastor Dan being anything but Pastor Dan throws Lev for a loop. ‘You…you lost your faith?’
’No,’ he says, ‘just my convictions. I still very much believe in God—just not a god who condones human tithing.’
Lev begins to feel himself choking up with an unexpected flood of feeling, all the emotions that had been building up throughout their talk—throughout the weeks—arriving all at once, like a sonic boom. ‘I never knew that was a choice.’
All his life there was only one thing Lev was allowed to believe. It had surrounded him, cocooned him, constricted him with the same stifling softness as the layers of insulation around him now. For the first time in life, Lev feels those bonds around his soul begin to loosen.
‘You think maybe I can believe in a God like that, too?’ ”
WHOA. I think I audibly said, “Wow!” Our manmade religions, flawed and broken, do not equal a flawed and broken God. Our God is the God who hears our cry and comforts the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:17-18). Our God is a comforter, healer, redeemer, and protector. (Zephaniah 3:17, Psalm 18:1-2). Our God is not like the one portrayed in the religion in Unwind – He is not a cruel, harsh, legalistic god who will turn his face if we disobey.
No, Our God is the God Lev sees in this moment, a God who is grieved by evil (1 John 4:8, Proverbs 6:16-19) and promises to one day end all suffering (Revelation 21:4). Our God does not turn his face from us when we do not meet standards; on the opposite hand, He pursues us in the midst of our brokenness (Luke 19:10). He is the God who wants to heal us and be near to us. He wants to give us His hope, which cannot fade with season or change with time. THIS is the God we serve. Lev has been brought up under a legalistic god, but the truth this passage reveals the longing in his soul. The longing in all of our souls. And this is why I loved this book.