Reviews /

The Climbers

Authored by Keith Gray
Published by Barrington Stoke Ltd

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The Climbers is an absolute gem of a novella from Barrington Stoke which should appeal to all secondary-aged readers. Set in an unnamed village, this coming-of-age story follows the rivalry of two teenage boys vying to be the best at climbing trees: our narrator Sully, who has lived in the village all his life, and a newcomer who is known only as Nottingham after the city he has come from.

This is a perfectly crafted story which repeatedly surprises us with plot twists. Keith Gray uses the names of the five trees in the park to structure his tale (whoever is the first to climb each tree gets to name it – ‘Crazy Ash Bastard’¬†is a particularly ingenious name) but there is nothing formulaic about this: Gray’s pacing is assured and something different happens up each tree before we reach the thrilling finale as Sully and Nottingham race to be the first to climb the last, unnamed tree.

What makes this such a sublime piece of writing is the way that Gray manages to make everything in this story matter so much. This is largely achieved through Sully’s narrative voice, which feels totally authentic and real. Gray captures something of what it means to grow up in relative deprivation, to find something that is a source of pride and identity within your community (in Sully’s case being the best climber) and then to have that status threatened by an outsider. At the same time, Sully must come to terms with the consequences of his own actions and the way that these might drive others away, particularly his best friend Mish who is starting to have enough of being his ‘support crew‘. It is unusual for a YA novel to feature a narrator who is so flawed for much of the story, but his gradual realisation of this is what makes his coming of age so powerful.

This is quite a gritty story and there are lots of issues bubbling under the surface – Sully comes from a single-parent family, and his mother works long shifts for low wages; Mish has missed a lot of school while caring for her mother who is unwell; and we also learn that Nottingham has experienced his own fair share of trauma – but these are all handled with great deftness and sensitivity. Perhaps most importantly, this is a study of teenage masculinity, and amidst all of machismo and bravado, there is a deeply touching moment of vulnerability and tenderness in one treetop conversation between Sully and Nottingham.

This book has huge potential for use in secondary classrooms. Like all Barrington Stoke books, its brevity and the accessibility of its language make it an ideal text to share with reluctant readers, but this is such a rich text I feel it would be a mistake only to use it with intervention groups. It would make an excellent KS3 class reader (where its brevity would again be an advantage in getting through the text) and I would even consider using it with GCSE sets when teaching creative writing as Gray offers such a masterclass in how to construct a narrative with simple but staggeringly effective ingredients.