Playing Hunger Games on the West Bank
● The Wall
By William Sutcliffe
Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $17.99
Children’s fairy tales often hinge on the simplest of dichotomies of good versus evil, or known versus unknown. Stray on the path to grandmother’s house, the moral goes, and some hungry carnivore will enjoy you over noodles. Far safer to cling tight to mommy’s skirts, look both ways before crossing the street and never peek inside that wardrobe.
William Sutcliffe’s “The Wall,” a self-styled “fable” set in the present-day Israeli settlements on the West Bank, offers a disquieting new spin on this Big Bad Wolf archetype. When 13-year-old Joshua, who lives with his mother and stepfather in the fictional Israeli settlement of Amarias, stumbles upon a tunnel that leads him under the wall that divides his town, he discovers not the evil goblins his settler stepfather has taught him to fear, but rather real people, living real lives in straitened conditions. Joshua sees a flattened house, flees bloodthirsty bullies and meets an intriguing girl, all before escaping back to the safety of the “quiet, clean, just-built streets of Amarias” on his, the Israeli, side.
But Joshua has been changed by his glimpse beyond the wall. Knowledge, as is its wont, has ruined him. He cannot unsee what he has seen, and he soon begins to question everything his stepfather has told him of their enemies, who “only understand violence.”
In many ways, this book is a classic coming-of-age story, with our narrator propelled, after his trip behind the wall, to re-examine the received truths of his childhood. It is a story of rebellion, against not just Joshua’s authoritarian true-believer stepfather, but also the boy’s mother, whose world collapsed when her first husband was killed while in army service, and who retreated into her second husband’s world of prayer and submission.
Whatever else might be said about it, “The Wall” certainly has a gripping storyline, as Joshua sets out on a series of top-secret (and often cringe-inducingly ill-advised) explorations of the world beyond the wall. The life-or-death stakes of Joshua’s every action give this book the apocalyptic overtones of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” or Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” with the big difference being that the dystopia of “The Wall” isn’t made up, or in a far-distant time or place. Though Sutcliffe very pointedly eschews proper names to keep the allegorical element strong, he has situated his novel very recognizably in the present, in the divided territories of the West Bank.
“The Wall” is being marketed as both a young-adult and an adult novel, which makes sense: Like adult novels, “The Wall” tackles thorny political complexities that might confuse a reader completely unfamiliar with the history of Israel. And it shares with many Y.A. novels not just a headstrong teenage narrator, but also a heightened sense of morality that so often dissipates with adolescence. Also in the Y.A. tradition, the book frames the big question — in this case, the Israeli fight to claim the lands they won in 1967 — in a generational context. This showdown between Joshua and his stepfather wonderfully illustrates the insoluble rift between the two:
“Do you still not understand what this is for? How long we’ve waited? Can you not even see that at long last, after all this time, we’re winning! Bit by bit, we’re winning! And if it takes another thousand years, and we have to fight inch by inch, so be it.”
“You can’t fight for a thousand years. You’ll be dead.”
“The next generations will carry on the fight.”
“I’m the next generation. And I think you’re crazy.”
For readers like this one — readers raised to believe in the sanctity of the sovereign Jewish state who are beginning to wonder, after all these years, at what cost it must come — conversations like this one stir the right sort of questions. Is a two-state solution even worth debating with convictions this fervent? Is there space on either side for non-extremists? What to do about the people who aren’t zealots or terrorists, who are just trying to live their lives in the place of their birth?
There are also less probing questions one could ask of “The Wall,” as well: for example, is this novel (written by an English Jew, incidentally) “anti-Israel propaganda,” as one reviewer has claimed? Well, only if being anti-settlement is the same thing as being anti-Israel.
As the book’s tagline has it, “There are two sides to every story.” And “The Wall” makes a brave effort to show the many dimensions of these sides: Not just the Israelis versus the Palestinians, but also the religious versus the secular, the diehard occupiers versus the reluctant conscripts. (Before his death, Joshua’s father, we’re told repeatedly, never let his son see him in uniform.) The Israel-Palestine question is not, obviously, one that can be settled by a Narnia-like morality tale. But Sutcliffe, through his narrator, Joshua, does introduce some thought-provoking possibilities.
Maybe, just maybe, there are young people like Joshua on both sides of the wall who are too focused on survival for ideology, or who — like so many younger American Jews — have grown fatigued by the never-ending escalations in the struggle for the Holy Land. Maybe the light-over-darkness, good-versus-evil polarization dramatized in so many great fairy tales just doesn’t transfer all that seamlessly to the rich, complicated, textured canvas of real life.
Laura Moser is the co-author of four young adult novels, the most recent of which, “My Darklyng,” ran as a serial on Slate.