This verse novel for teenage readers is set on the Byker Wall estate in Newcastle. It traces a grim year or so in the lives of several families and individuals in a run-down working-class community which, with the collapse of traditional industries like shipbuilding, has lost heart and purpose. Byker now offers the present-day teenager an easy slide into a nihilistic underworld of sex, drugs and disorder. Ellen Phethean wrote the book during her time as writer-in-residence at Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, which is only a short distance from Byker. Her main characters are Kylie, 15, who is pregnant, and her brother Sean, who is pulled by drugs into violence, uncontrollable anger, and mental illness. The best that parents achieve is well-meaning ineptitude, beset as they are by problems of their own and social forces larger than themselves. Phethean’s cast also includes a family of immigrants and refugees, bewildered and victimised by this dysfunctional society.
The form of the verse-novel, moving fluidly in page-long segments between monologue, dialogue, and the public languages of text, rap and graffiti, allows many voices to be heard and a bleak (but not entirely hopeless) narrative to run its course. Wall has a strong and depressing authenticity. It is not easy reading, either emotionally or linguistically, and will need to be mediated to teenage readers, though if sensitively taught it will provide a chastening insight into the social reality of an urban underclass. The trouble is, of course, that teenagers like Kylie and Sean are not its potential audience. Wall is a powerful and effective work, but most of its readers are likely to be adults and high-achieving students.