This review was published at the Independent.
Joshua lives in a brand new town called Amarias. He shares his brand new house with his mother who, since his father’s death in battle, has been “like a pane of glass riddled with cracks that was still somehow sitting there in the frame,” and also with tree-killing Liev, the “anti-father” whose cloying unpleasantness is a great pleasure to read.
One day, chasing a lost football and propelled by an overbearing curiosity, Joshua discovers a tunnel which leads under a wall to an entirely different world – one containing both danger and kindness, and a beguiling young girl. As storytellers from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman know, there’s something archetypal about holes in walls opening onto entirely unexpected realms; and tunnels to wonderland have been evoking rebirth since ancient cave painters squeezed through crevices to make their sacred art. William Sutcliffe employs all this rites-of-passage symbolism with a very light touch, and crafts his novel with sustained suspense.
The new world is not named (not until page 80 is it called “the Occupied Zone”; and the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are never mentioned) – in this way the book avoids being self-professedly ‘political’ – yet the place is described with great accuracy and atmospheric precision. An “aftertaste of violence is hanging in the air, like a bad smell.” The houses are close-packed, unpainted, unfinished. The shops spill onto cracked streets which are “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing.” Those who know will recognise “the mournful wail of a solo voice backed by violins” as the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, but Joshua doesn’t know. He doesn’t even speak the language, though the inhabitants speak his.
Amarias, on his side of the wall, with its lawns and pools and rows of identical houses, is clean and fresh “as if a magic spell has conjured it up out of thin air.” Once Joshua has tasted forbidden knowledge, the town, and the fact that no-one around Joshua seems to recognise the absurd ephemerality of its situation, become darkly surreal.
All this is seen, very usefully, through a young person’s eyes, and so is stripped of fossilised narratives and assumptions. For once on this contentious topic, the absence of context is actually illuminating. “The Wall” is a book felt rather than thought, felt primarily through Joshua’s body, viscerally, in the details of the emotional jolts to his metabolism. It makes for fast-paced, exciting reading.
From Joshua’s football partner arguing there’s no such thing as a foul if there’s no ref present, to a cartoon of a large dog stealing a bone, the novel is littered with light images which bear heavy connotations only if you choose to notice them.
Joshua’s inarticulate sense of “an angry, vengeful machine” that will leap into action if he spills the secret of his access to the other side develops when, hiddden, he observes the checkpoint, the usual point of entry, and the different treatment of white and yellow numberplates there, and the cages and turnstiles through which the other ethnicity is prodded, wearing expressions “poised between patience and rage, weariness and defiance, pride and helplessness.”
“The Wall”, amongst many other things, is a coming of age novel. Taking sustenance from ghostly or substitute fathers, Joshua discovers his independence (finding “an edge, where I stop and Mum starts”), makes good a secret project, faces down the monstrous false father, and finally escapes, but only from one lie to another. The end is inspiring, delivering the spine chill that a good novel should, but is in no way romantic or idealised. Full liberation is delayed, as in the unspoken context it must be.