William Sutcliffe’s The Wall was well reviewed on its release last spring and has now been shortlisted for the Carnegie Award. The novel is set in the fictional town of Amarias where checkpoints and a massive wall, “put up to stop the people who live on the other side setting off bombs”, separate Joshua, his family and community from that other part of town. The novel begins as Joshua climbs into a building site to retrieve his football. He finds a tunnel and, unable to curb his inquisitive nature, crawls in and through to the other side. He is almost immediately set upon by a group of boys and has to run for his life. He is then helped by a girl, similar in age, who shelters him and then leads him back to the tunnel. Thus begins a complex tale of personal and political discovery as Joshua confronts new, life-changing knowledge and the prejudice and ignorance that surround him.Having just read two Frances Hardinge novels – probably my favourite YA author - back to back, I didn’t really think The Wall would be able to prolong my literary high, but (astonishingly) it has. The narrative is told in the first person present tense and skilfully bears witness to Joshua’s thoughtful and observant nature before erupting into tense passages of explosive action and dialogue. The language and figures of speech are just about perfect – clear, direct and calmly expressive.
The author uses familiar tropes from children’s fiction – secret gardens, journeys into holes, through tunnels and over walls to reach a different reality - but these intimations of the fantastic, in Sutcliffe’s hands, work to defamilarise Amarias and its sister town behind the wall. When Joshua first confronts life on the other side of the wall he “can see that something is fundamentally different from what I’m used to . . . perhaps it’s the oddity of knowing that the freakishness of this place is only in my head, in its unfamiliarity to me”. The street he spies is “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing” and “the shops all spill out on to the street as if there’s no clear difference between inside and outside”. This whole passage where Joshua details and lists what he can see is characteristic of the novel as a whole – clear elegant prose that describes accurately but never tries to explain everything away or remove the mystery and freshness of Joshua’s experiences.
Though Israel, Palestine, the Occupied Territories and ‘settlers’ are never named it will become clear to many readers that this indeed what the novel is about. That said, our first student to read the novel at school – a very clever and perceptive Year 8 – only realised this when she saw the notes at the end of the book. Thus for many young readers the text will clearly pass as a work of weird fiction and as a fable. Nonetheless other readers with a basic awareness of the debates about Israel and Palestine will appreciate the subtext whilst realising what an explosive topic the author has taken on. Anyone in the West vaguely wary or critical of Israeli polices is liable to labelled anti-Semitic and Sutcliffe has already suffered from this. For me this is easy to counter – you can quite clearly be an opponent of racism and fascism, standing side by side with Jewish people in any fight against oppression and hatred whilst still being severely, and loudly, critical of Zionism.
The novel actually raises more interesting questions, about didacticism in YA literature and about the presence and utility of propaganda in art. The Wall is undoubtedly angry and partisan. You can’t read the novel without gaining insights into the zealous mind-set of the settlers and the severe brutality and injustice of the occupation. My normal reaction is that if you want to do politics, write a pamphlet not a novel. Yet for all that I think Sutcliffe somehow pulls it off, especially when he evokes the geography of separation and oppression. Nor does the novel ever lapse into sentimentality. Joshua’s insights are hard won and cause much misery along the way yet the passages that describe his bid for redemption in the Olive Grove are beautiful and sensuous. The novel I want to compare it with, perhaps only tentatively, is Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator. It has same political underpinning, the same glimpses of the uncanny combined with a wonderful compassion and humanity. In its final pages The Wall captures the sadness and contradictions of Joshua’s situation as well as a final inspiring moment of resolve. The boundaries that separate and divide humanity are sometimes physical and imposing, sometimes invisible and ideological – Sutcliffe gives us a vital sense of their punishing, divisive complexity.