Friday 5 July 2013

THE WALL, by William Sutcliffe: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This novel is set in a town called Amarias, which is divided in half by a high wall. Joshua lives on one side with his mother and his hated stepfather, Liev. He has no notion of what life is like on the other side, until one day his friend kicks a precious football into a derelict building site, which is out of bounds to the public. Joshua decides to climb over the gates and retrieve the ball, and discovers a tunnel which is heading in the direction of the wall - and the other side. He knows what he should do, and he knows what every other boy in Amarias would do - they'd walk away. 'But as I see it, those are the two best reasons there could possibly be for doing the opposite.'

So that's exactly what he does. And that choice - to go through the tunnel - triggers a terrible chain of events. It's classic tragic hero stuff - his intentions are good; he does what he believes to be right, even though it would be easier to do the opposite. (Though he is also motivated by the desire to defy his stepfather.) But his actions bring misfortune and worse to himself and to the people he comes to admire and care about.

The book is published in two editions, one for adults and one for young adults. Sutcliffe explains why in an interview for Armadillo Magazine, which you can read here. The setting is actually the Israeli occupied West Bank, but this is not made explicit, and certainly to begin with, teenage readers might assume that the setting is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic one. I'm not sure if this is necessary. I think I'd rather it was nailed to a time and place - we all need to know more about the world we live in, and I don't think there's any need to blur the edges of the intent to do this.

I would have liked a bit more context, about the historical background which has created the present situation and about some of the characters. The people on Joshua's side of the wall - the Israeli side - are a little two-dimensional: Liev in particular: he's dreadful, but why? What's made him like that? The people on the other side are much more complex - and much nicer; it's a little too clear which side you're supposed to be on.

That said, this is a brave and powerful book. It's bleak: you long for everything to turn out all right, but in this flawed, horrendously difficult situation, you know that it's unlikely that it will. But there is a partial redemption, and a glimmer of hope that through goodwill and the meeting of minds, a solution will eventually be found.

The book is published by Bloomsbury, and the first image shows the YA cover. (Would you have known which was which? I had to look it up. I prefer the first one...)


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