Book review: The Wall by William Sutcliffe

WILLIAM Sutcliffe’s early novels, New Boy, The Love Hexagon and Are you Experienced?, were light-hearted coming-of-age tales set during school, university or its immediate aftermath in which young protagonists wrestled with anxieties, were confused about love and sex and generally found themselves tested by life.

The Wall

William Sutcliffe

Bloomsbury, £12.99

They were fun, entertaining reads, written with a good deal of comic aplomb and energy, but they did not tend to stick around in the mind for long afterwards.

The Wall, which comes emblazoned with praise from the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh is a stylistic and thematic departure for Sutcliffe which approaches youth and the business of coming of age with a more sober and political eye. Joshua, Sutcliffe’s 13-year-old protagonist, lives in the hilltop town of Amarias, which we read as a fictionalised Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

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His world is bounded by a wall which is heavily guarded by armed soldiers. A misplaced football leads to the discovery of a tunnel which allows him to bypass the heavily guarded checkpoint and leads him out into the surrounding world, a world filled with people whom he has always heard described as savage and inhuman.

The reality proves somewhat different and it changes our narrator, initially in ways he himself is only partly aware of, and then with a cataclysmic impact that reshapes his life for good.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has seen much ink spilled on both sides, but Sutcliffe’s take on the conflict has plenty to recommend it. His great realisation is that the political situation of the West Bank, with its restricted areas, encampments and deep-seated antagonisms, can easily be mapped on to the contours of classic children’s fiction in which gaps in curtains, locked doors, secret passages and the rest have always lead to adventure in hidden worlds.

In The Wall, Sutcliffe successfully creates a world which is part parable, part classic children’s tale. Joshua’s world, in which family conflict is initially more important than external political events, feels satisfactorily real, the symbolic elements are wrapped up in real concrete and barbed wire, and the sense of threat is palpable.

Sutcliffe’s ambition is bold: to give a psychological portrait of the damage wrought by forced segregation, and the demonisation of the other. What gives it true force is the fact that Joshua’s community and those who surround them are geographically so close, and, the author suggests, have far more in common than the barrier between them implies. Joshua’s developing relationship with Leila, whom he befriends on the other side of the wall, is well drawn, even if the plot in the middle of the novel is a little predictable as Joshua wrestles with the differences between reality and the rhetoric he has been sold as truth.

The Wall feels as though it is pitched squarely at the crossover market which has made mainstream hits out of children’s novels like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time. But though Joshua is an appealing character and the business with the tunnel is skilfully carried off, the novel feels a bit schematic.

If Sutcliffe’s early novels were clever but light, this one occasionally feels as if it is straining for political profundity.