It’s a story hewn straight from the very best children’s books. A young boy, looking for a lost football, discovers an entrance to a mysterious tunnel. Crawling along its rat--riddled walls, he finds himself transported into a completely different world. Thirteen-year-old Joshua emerges into a town “bursting with bustle and life ... fundamentally different from what I’m used to”. Immediately, he is chased down the most astonishing street he has ever seen, only to be saved by a girl called Leila. He is beguiled by her, and her people.
But this isn’t a clone of Narnia or Alice in Wonderland. In William Sutcliffe’s excellent new novel, The Wall, it quickly becomes obvious that Joshua is a Jewish settler and Leila is Palestinian, and the 42-year-old writer of five previous novels is attempting something far more interesting.
“What I actually wanted to do is write the story of a kid brought up living a fantasy who happens across reality. For me, that was a lot more interesting.”
Even though The Wall never outwardly tells the reader that Joshua is an Israeli settler, or that the tunnel has been burrowed under the West Bank barrier, the geography and politics of The Wall are absolutely clear. The fictional town is called Amarias, which is an anagram of Samaria – still the name used by some Israelis to describe the northern West Bank. Sutcliffe visited the settlements himself to try to understand why people would want to live in them. “They feel surreal, like a fantasy,” he confirms. “All this turmoil around them, yet inside, it’s like you could be in some boring suburb in -California.”
Sutcliffe’s real achievement is to make the book something of an Animal Farm for our times: children will enjoy The Wall as a -coming-of-age adventure story with a moral compass. Adults, meanwhile, will be drawn to think again about the situation in the West Bank.
“Joshua had to be a child, because the gulf between the adult settlers and Palestinians is pretty much unbridgeable,” he says. “But 13 was a good age because it’s when Jewish boys have a bar mitzvah and, in the eyes of the religion, become a man. It meant he would be able to think for himself for the first time, rather than believe what his parents told him about being a settler.”
And so, after meeting Leila’s father, who can’t look after the family olive and lemon groves because of visiting restrictions, Joshua starts to try to help him. In trying to do good, he makes things worse, but his experience of a different life is a liberation. It was an experience shared by Sutcliffe, who went on two separate research trips to make sure, for his adult readers, The Wall would feel like -“reportage”.
“Seeing this military occupation was very shocking,” he remembers. “If you read the news, the moment of history is always when the gun is fired. What you realise by going to the West Bank is that the power of the gun is everywhere, even when no one is pulling the trigger. I think that’s the job of the novelist as opposed to the reporter: to explore how these conflicts affect ordinary people who are just trying to get to work or school.”
What makes The Wall particularly interesting is that Sutcliffe is of Jewish heritage himself. Was it a difficult book to write?
“Well, yes. But I’ve become increasingly aware that when people criticise Israel or its policies, they’re always accused of anti-Semitism. It makes people afraid to tell the truth about what’s happening there, which is an appalling 47-year military occupation and the building of a US$2.5 billion [Dh9.2bn] wall. So I think it’s important for Jewish people to stand up and say they don’t like it, because they can’t be attacked in the same way.”
Some pro-Israeli blogs have already criticised Sutcliffe’s book, however. One called it a “risible and fantastical tale”, full of Israeli caricatures.
“Yeah, but the criticism hasn’t stuck,” he smiles. “I didn’t really feel the particular blog you mention landed any real punches on me, which is good seeing as it feels like I’m making a pretty significant political statement with this book.”
And yet, despite its incredibly serious subject matter, The Wall is not only fun, but thrilling and, in places, tear-jerkingly kind. There is hope here, but it’s incredibly hard won.
“There’s talk of an unarmed, peaceful intifada and surely that’s the way forward,” says Sutcliffe. “But it was really important to the authenticity of the book that it wasn’t a ‘everyone can be friends across the barbed wire’ kind of story. I guess I have an optimism about people rather than politicians – and a belief that most people want to live ordinary lives in peace.”