Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind by Neal Shusterman asks the reader to suspend disbelief, a lot of disbelief. If you can play along, you’re in for a thrilling ride of a story.

Unwind is set in a dystopian future, after the second American Civil War fought between the pro-choice and the pro-life factions. A strange peace accord was reached wherein abortion was outlawed but every parent has the right to have their children “unwound” between the ages of 13 and 18. Unwinding consists of taking the child apart and using their organs, limbs, tissues, etc. for transplants into other people. Since the entire body is used, the person is still considered alive just in a different form. Unruly children beware. Reader, begin suspension of disbelief now. It will be worth it.

The story concerns three children who are to be unwound. Conner is a difficult child. He gets into fights at school and does not have very good grades. His younger brother is the family golden child, and Conner just can’t really compare or compete. So his parents sign the papers to have him unwound. The day before the van is due to arrive and take him to a Harvest Camp, Conner decides to run away. He hitches a ride with a sympathetic truck driver but is soon caught by the police who track him down via his cell phone. He makes a desperate break for freedom and runs across a busy freeway. Almost run over by a passing car, he grabs 13-year-old Levi from the backseat and, using him as a hostage, continues his escape. A bus is forced off the road to avoid the two boys, and passenger Risa, an orphan who is also on her way to the Harvest Camp where she’ll be unwound, joins Connor in order to make her own escape. Connor and Risa soon find out that Levi is a ‘tithe’, a tenth child pledged to be unwound as part of his parents extreme from of fundamentalist Christianity. They give one tenth of everything to charity, including their children; Levi is their tenth child. The three children form an unlikely alliance and enter an underground railroad of sorts that takes run-away Unwinds through a series of safe houses to an airfield in Arizona where they are kept until they turn 18.

The story is a gripping thriller. The journey to the Arizona camp and what happens there is full of near captures, narrow escapes, unusual twists and turns. I soon forgot how unbelievable the story was and found myself immersed in the tale. The book is very hard
to put down, and the characterization is very impressive. The three lead characters are well drawn individuals. I could easily see a second novel featuring any of them. The supporting cast is actually memorable which I found to be a pleasing surprise. In so many thrillers like this the supporting players are simple stock figures, but here again I could easily see many of them filling their own volume.

While the situation is too far-fetched to be believable enough for the book to become a meaningful commentary on contemporary society the way many dystopian novels do, the writing in Unwind certainly drew me in enough to make me care about the characters and the plot kept me glued to the page.  It’s an excellent summer read.


This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in the early summer of 2008.  I have been slowly migrating all of my old reviews over to this new blog.  

6 thoughts on “Unwind by Neal Shusterman

  1. I don’t think dystopian worlds have to be believable in order to comment satirically on today’s world. They merely have to affect our emotions, and make us want to change our world for the better, to steer it further away from imagined dystopia.

    1. I think a certain level a believability is required. If the cause of the dystopia is no believable, if the actions taken in response are not believable, that’s problem in my view. The reader has to be willing to suspend belief, or is it disbeilef, for the book to work.

      I was willing to accept a long train as the setting in Snowpiercer. I didn’t suspend disbelief with Unwind, but I did basically enjoy the book.

  2. This sounded so interesting that I went off to find out more online and discovered three sequels. Just wondered if you’d read any of those and if so whether they were as good. I’m definitely going to try this one.

    1. I didn’t know there were any sequels. I don’t think I’ll be reading them. I rarely ever go for trilogies these days. Most of them really could be done in a single volume in my opinion.

  3. The Unwind books are some of my favourites! I could go on about them for ages; I was so excited when after five years a sequel was released. The characterization is certainly one of my favourite aspects of these books. I agree the overall concept of unwinding seems absolutely preposterous and unbelievable, but one of the things I find fascinating about these books is how they find grounding in reality. I love the inclusion of real-world news snippets throughout the novels (Actually, that might not have been a feature of Unwind, haha. But it’s included in the next two.)

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