I ended the novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman with only one certainty - that despite my compulsion to finish the book, I would not be recommending it to ANYONE.  Trying to figure out why has been a struggle.  Why, if it was such a compelling read, do I not also feel compelled to recommend it to others?


In the end, I think it came down to the underlying main idea or theme of the novel, which in my opinion centered on the value and nature of both life and death.  For much of the novel, the reader understands that unwinding is death.  Proponents of unwinding couch it in politically correct terms, claiming that those unwound will continue to live in an altered state.  We as the readers, however, understand that this is simple posturing, a justification that has no basis in reality or fact.  We are rooting for the children of this novel, whether that child is a tithe, a ward of the state or a bully, because we understand that at their core, each child is a potential victim.

Although the author poses a number of questions and seems not to provide any answers, the reader is guided by the narrative toward an understanding that those who support unwinding are either misguided or self-serving or evil.  The concept of storking on the surface may seem acceptable, but once we have been exposed to its dark side, we understand it is yet another corrupt facet of this society.  We understand, perhaps even more clearly than the protagonists of this novel, that children are being killed in this world - not unwound - but murdered for their parts.  We understand that the harvesting of organs, tissue and body parts is clearly big business, just as we understand that those who have been unwound are no longer alive, in any sense of the word.

As a result, the themes of this novel completely break down for me in the culminating scene with Embry and the admiral.  When I am suddenly witness to a scene with hundreds of people acting as one body, providing the admiral and his wife with one final moment with their son, my entire understanding of life and death, at least as they occur within this society, have been turned around.  I am left with a foul taste in my mouth as I wonder - has the author just proven the enemy’s point?
I am complete aghast that I am now witness to the “altered state” proponents of unwinding have been spouting all along.  The fact that each body part somehow retains the memory of its original owner does nothing to alleviate the horror of the unwinding process.  However, I am still undeniably disturbed that the counselor’s final words to Roland were somehow true ones:  “You’re not dying — you’ll still be alive, just in a different way.”

I honestly believe that this novel was attempting to accomplish too much.  First, we are treated to a society that has gone to extremes when dealing with issues like abortion.  There are convoluted (and at times completely unrealistic) laws regarding storking, tithing and unwinding.  Questions regarding the soul and life after death are raised.  And no real answers are ever given.  Perhaps this is the strength of the novel, though for me, it is its ultimate weakness.  All kinds of questions are raised and we think we have our answers, at least in light of the unwinding and what it is truly accomplishing (spare parts for the wealthy and death for those unwound) and then we are slammed with the truth - Wow.  The unwinds really are still alive in an altered state.

In the end, I am left wondering what will happen to Embry after his unwind’s brithday celebration - will he get to go back to being Embry?  Even worse, I am left with the disturbing image of Conor with Roland’s zombie-arm (after all, if it still retains a part of Roland’s consciousness, even if it’s only skin-deep, what else can it be but a zombie?)

The result is that I am convinced that the themes of life and death that are pervasive in this novel have been undermined completely by the author’s unexpected decision to turn this unique concept into yet another zombie story (though I suppose it could be argued that zombie stories are masters at death themes… and yet).