Book Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman 

 March 28, 2023

By  Turn The Page

‘The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding’. Unwinding is now a common, and accepted, practice in society.

In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would unwind them. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. It they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can’t be harmed – but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, is wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away.’

Quite possibly one the most disturbing books I have ever read. 

I’m not even sure what I want to say about Unwind. It’s not a bad book, on the contrary it’s very good – I read it in about 3 hours non-stop and it certainly makes you think, but I’m not sure it’s a book I’ll want to pick up again – some parts are very… uncomfortable to read.

It’s strange to me that this was only first published 4 years ago in 2007 – because it feels like a book that was written two or three decades ago. That’s because in this futuristic world, rather than eliminating disease and growing replacement organs from scratch (which is certainly the route modern-day science is going down), we have a society that harvests, or ‘unwinds’, unwanted teenagers for body parts. Every part of them. It’s gruesome. And disturbing. But a pretty cool story-line nonetheless – even if a little outdated.

I found the narration a little disjointed, and a bit too basic, but I settled into the flow of the story after the first 30 pages or so. The constant switching of narration between characters was off-putting at first, but it did allow the reader to understand the bigger picture of everything that was going on and I enjoyed the tidbits of thought gleamed from secondary and fleeting characters. Unfortunately, it also means we never really have the chance to form much of a connection with any of the main characters and this is one area where Unwind falls down. I liked Connor and Risa and Lev well enough, but there was something lacking and I felt they could have been developed further. Out of the three, Lev was the most complex and showed the most growth throughout the book and I really wish we could have explored his character in far more depth. Because of this disconnect from the characters, I felt the book had far less emotional impact than it should have.

This is certainly a book you have to read with an open mind. Unwind is set in the future, where a war between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice led to ‘The Bill of Life’ being passed, which basically states that abortion is illegal, but ‘between the ages of 13 and 18, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child, on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end’. As an unwound’s organs are 100% reused, apparently it’s not considered as dying. Or murder. I mean, let’s be honest, this is a pretty horrific concept – if you’re a bad kid, unwanted, or just have the bad luck to be an orphan without no prospects, your parents or guardians can just hand you over to the government to be ‘unwound’. This is one twisted society that Susterman has created, made all the more creepy by the fact that everyone (well – except the poor kids) just accepts all this with no apparent twinges of conscience. In reality this Bill would, of course, never have been passed. Kids and adults would be rioting and protesting in the streets, I doubt the majority of people in the medical profession would ever condone it; and rather than satisfying both the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice armies, I imagine it would unite them as a common cause to fight against. The basic set up of Unwind is the books biggest flaw, but, as unlikely a situation as it is, Unwind does create a highly interesting ‘what-if’ scenario and open up some intriguing dynamics to explore – particularly in regards to the relationships between the characters.

Unwind is a tension-filled, exciting and fast-paced read. It touches on a lot of controversial and philosophical issues: abortion, quality of life, sanctity of human life, the existence of God, whether human’s possess a soul, what happens after death, the definition of murder and more, but sadly, it never really pushes any of these questions, and never really challenges the reader to either. Though entertaining, Unwind never quite has the impact I wanted, and expected, a book like this to have.

Shusterman doesn’t quite hit the mark on this, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. Unwind also has one of the worst, and best, scenes I have ever read, where we get to experience the process of unwinding first hand. It is masterfully written and just chilling. It’s not even graphic, but clinical and all the more heartbreaking because of it. I would argue it’s worth reading the whole book just for this scene alone.

So mi3.xed feelings on this one. I would certainly recommend it – you definitely need to be willing to suspend belief, and not take it to seriously, but if you can it’s worth it.

Even though it did freak me out.

Recommended Reading Age: 16+