All Fall Down

Written by Sally Nicholls
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1349. Thirteen-year-old Isabel and her family live in the Yorkshire village of Ingleforn. Farming is Isabel’s whole life, but that is about to change – terribly. The Black Death has arrived in Britain, and it will kill nearly half the population.

Sally Nicholls is interested in how people react to catastrophe. Isabel’s life is bound up with her family, looking after her little sister, worrying about her favourite brother, Geoffrey, in the nearby monastery, yearning after the shy but handsome Will, and helping her father farm their acres. As villeins, they are legally bound to their lord and have few rights; they cannot move away to better themselves. Isabel’s own options are even fewer; women can’t own businesses and have no say in who they’ll marry, for example. She cannot imagine things ever changing.

I was gripped by this book. Isabel’s reactions are absolutely believable: she can be defiant – as when she sneaks off to see if Geoffrey has survived; she sulks when she’s put in charge of her younger brother and sister; she regresses to being a child when tragedy threatens to overwhelm her – and all these emotions ring painfully true. But she also finds the courage to endure, even when she doesn’t know what the future holds, or, indeed, if she has a future.

All Fall Down is a thought-provoking book which looks squarely at an historical cataclysm of unimaginable proportions. It asks a number of important questions: how can you live through unremitting tragedy? How do you grow up in a disintegrating society and keep your moral integrity? How do you cope with being a survivor when most of the people you’ve loved have died horribly? Isabel must find a way to live without feeling that she’s betrayed the dead.

Thoughtful girls of 12 plus should love this book. Highly recommended.