The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.
Review: The Wall by William Sutcliffe
By Susanne Abou Ghaida
Although it is never explicitly mentioned, The Wall is set in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is the story of 13-year old Joshua who lives with his mother and his stepfather Liev in Amarias, a fictional Israeli settlement located next to The Wall (always capitalised in the text) erected to protect the settlements and its inhabitants from the people ‘on the other side’. Joshua is deeply alienated from his family and peers and hates living in Amarias. One day, his friend David kicks Joshua’s football over the Wall, so Joshua, who is a very strong-willed boy, climbs over the Wall onto the other side where he discovers a tunnel. He finds himself compelled to crawl through the tunnel and emerges into a Palestinian town on other end, a place at once so geographically close to Amarias but different in so many other ways: much less affluent but bustling with energy. He is then discovered and chased by local bullies only to be given cover by a Palestinian girl, who we later find out is called Leila. As he makes another visit to Leila’s town and tries to fulfil a promise he makes to her father, Joshua grows into manhood as he gains emotional independence from his family, undergoes a political awakening and develops physically.
As he has stated in several interviews as well as in a public discussion of the novel I attended last November, Sutcliffe took the motif of the portal (exemplified in the tunnel) from fantasy. At first it sits uneasily in what is clearly a realistic novel with its factual description of the settlements, the mentality of the settlers, the constraints on the mobility of Palestinians living in the West Bank as well as the internal dynamics within Palestinian society itself, including the constant need to identify and condemn collaborators and perhaps existing patron-client relationships (a possible explanation for the impunity enjoyed by the boys who chase Joshua and bully Leila’s family). However, upon re-reading the novel, I found this device effective in that it renders strange and unreal what was familiar and everyday to Joshua: the identical houses and pristine perfection of Amarias, the emptiness of its roads, and the almost overnight appearance of new houses and streets. Even his reference to Liev as his fake father becomes almost eerie. As Sutcliffe points out in an interview in the Guardian, the portal transports Joshua from fantasy to the reality and not the other way around.
Sutcliffe also states that he tries to be fair in describing a situation that he clearly feels is unfair, and he is not afraid to take sides. There is none of the attempt to remain artificially neutral through showing both sides as equally to blame; it is not one of those books which will endear the book to many readers but alienate others. Perhaps, the aspects he discusses such as the settlements and the wall are less divisive than other issues related to the situation in Palestine/Israel. Having said, at the end of the novel, Sutcliffe makes it clear that the problem is not limited to these aspects but to the occupation in general. Sutcliffe had clearly done his research, reading up on the subject, visiting the West Bank as a guest of the Palestine Literature Festival (his Road to Damascus moment) as well as going on an organised tour to the settlements. He resists easy solutions to what is a complicated situation as we see all of Joshua’s efforts to build bridges and help Leila and her family only leading to more trouble. There is dim hope, and the best a well-meaning individual can do is try and try again to make things better.
What is as fascinating as the description of the political divide among people on both sides of the actual (and metaphoric) wall in Israel/Palestine is the author’s presentation of the wall within Joshua’s own family with his mother and abusive stepfather forming a united front against him. It is a relationship built on deception and manipulation, and Joshua gives as good, proving very adept at baiting his mother and stepfather and resisting their efforts to control him.
Joshua still grieves for his dead father, who would refuse to have his son see him in his army clothes whenever he had to go off to do his army reservist duty. As in Ghost Hawk, a gentle, loving, and tolerant father is replaced by a cruel and violent extremist who seems to have his wife in a trance. Perhaps, Joshua’s ability to form an independent political point of view stems from his alienation from his family.
A Freudian would have a field day with the family dynamics portrayed in this book as Joshua relishes the moments when he is close to his mother’s body and struggles with Liev for her loyalty. In addition, when Joshua starts to develop his own political ideas in opposition to the notions being fed to him, he says:
“I feel as if there is a new line around me: an edge, where I stop and Mum starts. Before, it was a blur. She’s still my Mum-I still love her and need her and want her to be less miserable- but I realise that I have, in some way, got rid of her.” (p. 138).
The author succeeds in getting inside the head of Joshua, who is a keen and sarcastic observer of the dynamics within his family and society. Surprisingly, the novel is often funny. As Sutcliffe himself admits he does not always use the language of a thirteen year old. I wondered if the more adult diction would put young readers off. Although I would consider The Wall the best written of this year’s Carnegie Medal shortlist, I felt that his writing style sometimes needlessly slows down the narrative and makes the reading sluggish. All in all, this is a very strong contender to win the Medal.
Interview with author in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/02/william-sutcliffe-interview-the-wall