Published by Turner on March 12, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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Fiona and Danny were born in the same hospital. Fiona’s mom fled with her to the United States when she was two, but, fourteen years after the Troubles ended, a forty-foot-tall peace wall still separates her dad’s Catholic neighborhood from Danny’s Protestant neighborhood.
After chance brings Fiona and Danny together, their love of the band Fading Stars, big dreams, and desire to run away from their families unites them. Danny and Fiona must help one another overcome the burden of their parents’ pasts. But one ugly truth might shatter what they have…
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Content warnings: violence; child abuse; extensive talk of the Troubles and the violence and death that came along with them
I fell in love with Belfast upon first visiting the capital of Northern Ireland in 2016– so much so, in fact, that I’ve been back twice since. So when I saw that a YA book set in Belfast, featuring a forbidden romance between characters from families on opposite sides of the Northern Irish conflict, I was overjoyed! However, while All the Walls of Belfast has an excellent premise, in my mind, the execution left much to be desired.
All the Walls of Belfast is told through dual perspectives. We follow Fiona, a Northern Irish teenager raised in the US who travels to Belfast for the first time to meet and stay with her long-estranged father in the Catholic neighborhood of the Falls; and Danny, a Protestant from the Shankill neighborhood who’s trying desperately to escape Belfast and his abusive father. Fiona quickly learns some difficult truths about her father’s once-involvement with the IRA, a paramilitary group responsible for many of the terrorist attacks during the Troubles, while Danny continues to reckon with the expectations placed upon him by his UVF (another paramilitary group, this one on the Protestant side)-affiliated family and community.
Let’s start with the (few) good things I have to say about this story. First off, the setting is vivid and very true to what I remember. Belfast, both in its current state and in all of its ugly history, comes to life on these pages. Both of these main characters come from working-class families, albeit on opposite sides of the peace wall, and I found it interesting to see a side of Belfast that I hadn’t seen as a tourist. There are mentions of, and visits to, many of Northern Ireland’s noteworthy sites (City Hall, the Botanic Gardens, Giant’s Causeway) throughout the story. I personally can’t speak to whether the Northern Irish speech (or the Gaellic, for that matter) was done well, since I’m not from there and have only visited as a tourist.
I also think All the Walls of Belfast reckons with some interesting themes. Since our protagonists belong to the generation immediately following the Troubles (which, on paper, ended in the late 1990’s with the Good Friday Agreement), they make for an interesting demographic to follow. The violence between loyalists and republicans has largely subsided, but years and years of tension and history between the two groups didn’t just go away overnight, and the main characters both have to grapple with the lasting legacies of their families’ involvement in the conflict as well as the still-strongly-held convictions from both sides. I never learned about the Troubles in school, and really all I knew about them came from the (admittedly, very comprehensive) black cab tour my dad and I took while in Belfast the first time, so I don’t think I realized the scope of the conflict. With it being such a recent part of Ulster’s history, it makes perfect sense that people living in Belfast still have to grapple with the aftermath of the Troubles every day. This story definitely showed the ways in which prejudice can be passed along from generation to generation like poison, further perpetuating the cycle of violence and hateful rhetoric.
While it explored some interesting themes, what really turned me off of All the Walls of Belfast was the romance. I just could not get behind it. It was trying SO HARD to be an angsty, forbidden romance– and I was like, okay, I get the “forbidden” part, but where, oh where, is the “romance?” Danny and Fiona had all the chemistry of two pieces of wet cardboard. This is a classic example of instalove done poorly. We get next to no scenes of these two characters interacting at all, and the ones we do get are very surface-level, which makes it difficult, as a reader, to root for them! Also, I get that Danny had a lot going on– and no one, no one, deserves to suffer physical or emotional abuse from an authority figure– but he was lowkey kind of an asshole almost all the time? To everyone? I did not get what Fiona saw in them. Fiona as an MC was fine, I guess, but not a character who I’ll remember a week from now. I thought the romance had potential to explore some of the book’s themes on a deeper level, but unfortunately, it was not carried out in a way that actually made me empathize with the characters.
On top of that, the ending felt rushed; almost all the action happened in the last 15% of the e-ARC. It was one thing after another, after pages and pages of build, and then everything was resolved a bit too hastily (and, imo, in a bit of a bizarre way).
Overall, All the Walls of Belfast has a compelling setting and an interesting premise, but it ultimately fell quite flat for me.
Have you read All the Walls of Belfast?