The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

No Path Where the Path Should Be (Review: Unwind by Neal Schusterman)

Neal Schusterman
Simon and Schuster 2008 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, good intentions and idiots anyway – that's my takeaway message from Unwind, Neil Shusterman's dystopian novel. Set in a near-future America, the story takes place after a second civil war known as the Heartland War. This time around the violence is sparked not by slavery or a yearning for independence but by the escalating tension between opponents in the abortion debate.

As the action unwinds (sorry) we learn that the conflict has abated and that the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies have reached a gruesome compromise which has now been accepted as simply another aspect of life in the Land Of The Free. Abortion is no longer a legal option but this has resulted in an increasing number of unwanted children being introduced to the world, highlighting the idiocy of the religious right's fascination with abstinence-only sex education classes. The solution to the problem is the procedure known as 'Unwinding'. Between birth and the age of 13 every child is safe, whether cared for by their families, adopted parents or state-run institutions (the latter no friendlier in the future than they are today). However, from the age of 13 until they reach legal adulthood a child's parents or guardians may elect to have them unwound. Medical science has progressed to the point where there is almost no part of a human body which cannot be successfully used in transplant surgery – 99.44% to be precise. In a linguist twist of which Orwell would be proud a child cannot be considered truly dead if unwound since almost every part of them continues to live, albeit in a spatially dislocated fashion. The unwinding order is irrevocable and entirely independent of the child themselves, resulting in camps being set up across the country to care for those en route to the new afterlife.

Unwind follows three children on their way to the camps: Connor, Risa and Lev. Connor is typical of an Unwind (as those carrying the pseudo-death sentence are known) – a problem child who will never live up to his parents' expectations. He knows the order is coming and sets his plan in motion immediately – escape to the wilds of America and lay low until his 18th birthday when he will be legally safe. Risa is in a similar situation, although in even less control of her fate. While Connor had many advantages in life and could have changed his ways, Risa is an orphan in a state facility. Although blessed with a talent for the piano she fails her audition and is destined for the unwinding farm. In a rather contrived twist of fate her path crosses with Connor's during his bid for freedom and she finds herself along for the ride.

Lev is a special case. Born into a highly religious family, he is known as a 'Tithe' and from the day he could comprehend the words he knew he was destined for unwinding. For as well as donating 10% of their income to the church, certain religious sects will also give every 10th child in their families to the unwinding farms for the glory of god. (The excessive family sizes are explained through the act of 'storking', leaving unwanted babies on the doorsteps of people who, on discovering them, become legal guardians.). Lev has been brainwashed from his earliest years to accept and rejoice in his fate. He is fulfilling his destiny and barely entertains a second thought until Connor comes crashing into his life.

Through the journey of these three fugitives Neil Shusterman prods us into carefully considering the issues raised by the novel's central conceit. One of the questions I found myself asking throughout Unwind was “How could they possibly allow this situation to arise?”, a sentiment echoed by several people to whom I've mentioned the story. However, late in the game we are given the tragic background to unwinding and everything becomes clear. The suspension of disbelief is no longer required to such a great extent and the whole scenario becomes grimly (although still distantly) plausible.

One of the most powerful moments in Unwind comes close to the conclusion where Shusterman takes us behind the curtains of an unwinding farm's operating room. The procedure itself remains a mystery until that point, a bogeyman lurking in the background. However it is made horrifically real when we are forced to view it through the eyes of a patient. In a masterful move Shusterman puts one of the more unpleasant characters under the knife, someone who we steadfastly root against until suddenly he is transformed into an object of pure pity and a focus for our disgust towards the unwinding and all those who support it. It is also to his credit that this whole sequence features no gore, no blood and entrails, yet remains capable of moving the reader at a visceral level.

For some people the whole idea of unwinding as a compromise between two sides in an unlikely war may be too much to swallow. It did admittedly take some effort on my own part to put my own concerns about its unreality to the back of my mind while slipping into the book itself but rest assured, it does all become clear. Despite the often simplistic nature of the storytelling Neil Shusterman is capable of raising serious issues without ever being at risk of treating them in too shallow a fashion. With a sequel, Unwholly, on the way it would be a good time to check out this little-known gem of a book.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Unwind is available now with sequel Unwholly arriving at the end of September.

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