Literary Criticism and Significance
Written for young adults, Unwind has been universally acclaimed as a thrilling young adult novel. Published in 2008, Unwind won numerous young adult fiction awards and nominations, though not necessarily the most prestigious awards given to young adult literature, such as the Michael L. Printz Award. Though it is not his first novel, Unwind has garnered Shusterman a larger audience, though not one on par with Rowling’s (Harry Potter) or Meyer’s (Twilight). Reviews consistently praise Shusterman’s handling of his controversial subject.
Writing for the New York Times, Ned Vizzini praised Shusterman for his refusal to “come down explicitly on one side or the other” on the conflict between pro-life and pro-choice supporters. Although the fight between pro-life and pro-choice continues to divide Americans today, Shusterman offers a considered treatment of this divisive issue. In fact, it seems safe to say that a majority of both movements would be able to read Unwind without dismissing it as a pro-life or pro-choice diatribe. Ultimately, readers are left like Hayden, who, in spite of his best efforts to figure it out, admits that he does not know when consciousness begins or a soul is formed.
Of course, because Unwind is a recently published novel, it may still become a commonly challenged book in some parts of America. Indeed, the School Library Journal has reported that there has already been some pressure to remove it from curricula in Kentucky. Because Unwind allegorically refers to controversial subjects like abortion, stem-cell research, and teenage sex, the work may yet find a reluctant audience.
Shusterman has also received praise for both the inventiveness and plotting of his story. Shusterman has created a unique and fully realized dystopian vision, full of euphemisms that would do George Orwell (1984) proud. Critics consistently applaud the work as a science fiction thriller for young adults, and the pacing of the novel is never compromised by its invented and detailed history. In this respect, Unwind is first and foremost a page-turner.
The characterization in Unwind is perhaps less impressive than its ingenious premise. However, while some critics have been less enthusiastic about the detailed explanations of the characters’ emotions, this lack of subtlety is at least somewhat minimized when considering its target audience, teenagers. Although the emotional hurdles that protagonists Connor and Risa overcome are arguably straightforward, Shusterman has done a fine job of creating a complex character in Lev, the tithe that fell from grace.
Ultimately, Unwind is likely to continue to draw praise from both teenage and adult readers. Shusterman’s subtle treatment of a subject as polemical as reproductive rights is a great achievement, but this should not disguise the fact that Unwind is an exciting read.