Unwind was published in 2008 and I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read it. When I say ‘read it’, it would be more precise to say ‘seal all the doors, take the phone off the hook, turn off the mobile and sit and devour every last word, gripped from start to finish by an incredibly inventive and compelling story, fascinated by complex, evolving characters, and utterly shocked by the horror of it all’. That’s what I should have said. I finally read Unwind thanks to a Twitter friend Rob who mentioned Shusterman’s novel during his review of a book I’ve been waiting for – The Age of Miracles. I’m very grateful.
Unwind takes place in our near future. Abortion has been banned; human life is upheld as sacred. If only everything were that simple – some babies are still unwanted and some children have no homes. Families are forced to adopt babies abandoned – or ‘storked’ – on their welcome mats. If they can catch the mother then she has to take the child back but otherwise the law decrees they must keep the infant. Unless, of course, they quietly move the baby from their doorstep to that of a neighbour.
For older unwanted or rebellious children, the state has reached a terrible compromise. It ‘buys’ the children from parents and orphanages and sends them to harvest farms where they are unwound, piece by piece, each bit donated to those in need of blood, eyes, a limb, a heart or even a brain. The Unwinds are taught that they do not die, that each dismembered piece lives on and the law decrees that they endure their three hour plus disassembling fully conscious.
Unwind follows the story of three such youngsters: Connor, a troublemaker whose parents book a holiday in the Bahamas for the day after their wayward son’s unwinding; Risa, a ward of the state who has not been able to prove her value; Lev, a Tithe. Tithes are donations made by the devout to God – Lev is the tenth child. He is dressed in white, given a final party and handed over, in the care of a parson, to the fate he was born for.
All three have only one chance and that is to do all they can to survive until their 18th birthday when everyone becomes the owner of their own bodies. Circumstances and chance throw the three together and we follow, desperately urging them on, as they try to deal with their lot in life, their terrible fear of being unwound and the people who both help and hinder their fight to live whole.
Along the way we come across rumours surrounding the philosophical and spiritual implications of unwinding on the consciousness of the person unwound as well as the person who receives the body part. Vivid parallels are drawn with Nazi deathcamps. There are scenes here, two in particular, that will horrify you and move you. I wept on the bus, I tried not to but I couldn’t help it.
Unwind moves between the people of the story, the central three as well as many others who are swept up by their story. This contributes to the detailed and completely satisfying world-building, which doesn’t just construct society and laws but also its breakdowns and what that does to the most vulnerable and unwanted. Not all of these young people are likeable, far from it, but none of them deserve what their parents, guardians, church or government has in store for them.
Neal Shusterman has written a wonderful book here. Its prose is painfully direct and hits its target like an arrow. Its overdue sequel Unwholly is to be published in September, making this the perfect time to read (or re-read) Unwind.