All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls
|All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls|
In a really bittersweet sort of way, I loved this book.
All Fall Down is a tale about survival during the Black Death of 1349. The Black Death, or pestilence as it is referred to in the novel, was brought about by a deadly illness that spread through Europe killing at least a third of its population. Nobody knew of a cure. Once you had it, you died. That was that. And it spread like wildfire. So the thought of it arriving in a town near you, or in your village, or in your household was horrifically terrifying.
And so fourteen year old Isabel picks up the tale in her Yorkshire village of Ingleforn. The village has heard of this pestilence – all sorts of stories and some that are most likely untrue. They’re not too sure what to believe and some of them live day by day in denial that it even exists. And then they hear rumours that it is on the road from York, coming towards them, towards Ingleforn…
Just like the way that Isabel describes the pestilence, All Fall Down will sniff its way around your body, it will slip itself under your skin and bury itself deep in your bones and your heart. It’s a dark and mournful story and you may well want to shake it off. In fact, the first few pages are a bit difficult. There are a lot of characters and place names (I got confused, mushy brain!) and a lot of unfamiliar words from the time like pestilence, murrain, solar (but there’s also a glossary at the back). But the chapters are really short so it's also easy to take a break if you want to - I didn't!
And then how can you stop when Isabel says “We knew then that 1349 would be terrible. But nobody could have imagined quite how terrible it was going to be” (p.4)? You know it’s going to be bad but you’ll want to know just how bad and how they coped with it. Because what Sally Nicholls does really well, is create an attachment between the reader and the characters. There’s Isabel, Robin, Will, Alice, Geoffrey and a good few more. I bet you will get choked up and cry a few tears for each and every one of them. Isabel is a really fine character but so are Robin, Alice, Walt and Geoffrey. Oh, and Simon too!
While All Fall Down is an historical novel about death and survival during the Black Death, there is also a wonderful coming-of-age element to the story. It explores the difficult choices that young adults are faced with as they start to realise their own individual identities and discover what love, family relationships and even romance might mean in their lives. And the Black Death was a time to ask some big moral, ethical and religious as well as practical day-to-day questions.
What do you do when a baby’s parents have died? Do you risk your own health and the health of your family to rescue it? What about people who are going to die but haven’t been seen by a priest? Will they go to hell? Should you do something about this? Should you feed them? How brave should you be? How compassionate should you be? Is being brave and compassionate stupid – or maybe even selfish? Are there some things in life that a woman just shouldn’t be allowed to do? These are the sorts of things that Isabel suddenly has to deal with. Could you do this at fourteen?
And if you were fourteen and you know that you might not live for much longer, what is the one thing you would wish for? Should Isabel feel guilty about her wish?
All Fall Down is one of my favourite reads so far this year. Like RJ Palacio’s Wonder, it’s a story that almost any age could read and enjoy. However, while everything is very sensitively dealt with in this novel, there are themes of illness and death that might be unsuitable for some younger readers. Anyone who enjoyed SD Crockett’s After the Snow will probably enjoy this too.
Marion Lloyd Books (Scholastic), 2012, paperback
This copy: our own