London is a bombed-out ruin. St Pancras and the British Library are heaps of bricks, Westminster Abbey is intact — but just one wall of the Houses of Parliament remains. From Camden to Camberwell, a three-mile area is closed off, controlled by checkpoints. It is known as The Strip and the resistance smuggles in supplies through the Brixton Tunnels.
This is the landscape of William Sutcliffe’s new novel, We See Everything. A companion to his novel of 2013, The Wall, it puts an unsettlingly familiar filter over the former’s not quite explicit West Bank scenario.
“One of the most important tasks for fiction is to expand the empathy of readers,” says Sutcliffe. “By imagining a war like that happening in London, even young people can read it and think ‘what if it was me?’.”
In The Wall, teenage settler David goes through a tunnel and becomes involved with the life of a family on the other side of the wall. We See Everything feels more focused on the individual human experience of war — especially for Lex, son of a resistance leader and Alan, whose mission is to kill Lex’s father.
The Wall repositioned Sutcliffe as a Young Adult writer, almost accidentally. For the plot’s sake, its protagonist had to be of barmitzvah age, relatively naive. It was published in adult and YA editions but the YA version attracted attention and a Carnegie Medal shortlisting. Sutcliffe’s previous books, for adults, had been comedies (Philip Roth was a strong influence); his Circus of Thieves series for younger children are zany but the move to YA has coincided with more serious subject matter.
“I wanted to write about injustice and sticking up for the underdog,” he says. “There is a real thirst in YA readers for that. When I go into schools, the first thing I always talk about are other walls in history – Hadrian’s wall, the wall on the Mexican border — then move on to metaphorical or administrative walls, like the one that keeps refugees out of the EU… I didn’t want The Wall to be about ‘the nasty settlers’ — there’s some of that in all of us.” Later he emails to expand on the “some of that”, defining it as “living in a privileged enclave, choosing to ignore the suffering of others.”
Drone warfare puts up its own kind of wall — “it’s a reflection of that sense of detachment — having wars but keeping our distance from them… People talk a lot about the refugee crisis but not about the war crisis, the actual reality of sitting in a house and having 21st century war visited on you.”
Of Lithuanian (and Yorkshire) descent, Sutcliffe had a “secular Jewish upbringing” in Harrow, attending Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Elstree. “I didn’t feel very Jewish until I left London [for Emmanuel College, Cambridge]. Suddenly, I realised I had been living in a Jewish enclave,” he says.
Now based in Edinburgh, he is married to novelist Maggie O’Farrell, with three children aged five to 14.
His next YA book will, he promises, be “funny.” He hopes readers of We See Everything will not feel downcast but will be gripped by the thriller element and moved by the love story at its heart.
“I wanted to get across the amazing power of being in love for the first time as a teenager,” he says.
“I remember very clearly the intensity of the emotion and the thrill of pushing back the boundaries of what you have done before. For every single person it feels like the discovery of a new land.”
‘We See Everything’ is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)