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Review - The writing on the wall is a tad worthy

William Sutcliffe's first novel, New Boy, was a lighthearted tale of teacher-student affairs at an independent school. His second, Are You Experienced?, a close-to-the-bone satire about gap-year students in India, should be compulsory reading for anyone, of any age, planning a trip to the subcontinent.

His latest book, The Wall, is rather different. It tells the story of 14-year-old Joshua, who lives in a town of whitewashed houses and manicured lawns, ringed by a vast concrete wall. One day, Joshua discovers a tunnel that burrows under the wall, beyond the checkpoints, to the older, very different town on the other side.

OK. We all know what Sutcliffe is talking about here. But, coyly, he refuses to name it: the words "Israeli" and "Palestinian" appear nowhere in the novel. Instead, there are oblique references to "the Occupied Zone", "my language" and "their language".

I have no idea why he does this. If anything, it makes the novel appear creakily ill-researched. In one scene, for example, a character from the other side of the wall says, "Who is it?", first in her own language and then in Joshua's. Sutcliffe refers merely to "three syllables" in each. In Arabic, the question "Who is it?" has one syllable; in Hebrew it has two. Sutcliffe's characters, in their linguistic no-man's-land, appear to be speaking English.

That aside, the novel is rather good, if somewhat painfully well-intentioned. Joshua befriends a family from the other side of the wall, and agrees to tend their ancestral olive grove, to which they now have only limited access. Eventually, this leads him to question his own life, in its protected settlement bubble.

Everything that is wrong with the settlements - the Bible-thumping fundamentalism, the gun-toting frontier mentality, the demonising of all Palestinians as terrorists - is concentrated into Liev, Joshua's bully of a stepfather.

To be fair, a lot of settlers probably are just like Liev. My quibble, again, is one of research. In one scene, Liev courts Joshua's mother by kissing her by a swimming pool. No ultra-religious Jew would touch a woman he was not married to, let alone kiss her. And especially not in public.

Still, Joshua continues on his political-awakening journey engagingly enough. Sutcliffe's observational talent, which made Are You Experienced? so biting, is still there, albeit now for descriptive, rather than comic, effect.

After Joshua's father's death, for example, his mother is, heart-rendingly, "like a pane of glass riddled with cracks ... You couldn't look at her without thinking the slightest tap would shatter her into a thousand pieces."

Certainly, The Wall is a well-written, enjoyable book. I just cannot help feeling that it is simply too earnest and well-meaning to be memorable.

The Wall by William Sutcliffe is published by Bloomsbury, hardback #163;12.99.

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