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The Tightrope Walkers


The Tightrope Walkers

In THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS, David Almond writes a deeply personal coming-of-age story about family, social class, love and the artistic life --- all couched in exquisitely lovely prose.

Every once in a while, I am assigned to review a book whose prose is so close to perfect that I'm tempted to simply string together a series of excerpts so potential readers can dive into the language themselves rather than wade through my comparatively clumsy attempts to distill the book's plot and themes. So, just to get things out of my system, let's start with a passage from David Almond's THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS about the coming of spring: "We wanted to walk and run with confidence across the earth. Wanted the sun to haul itself up from its sullen place low over the horizon, to get into the air above us and bliddy shine. Which it started to do of course. For the world turns, and keeps on turning, no matter how things might feel in the darkest of times. And carpets of ice on ponds retreated, and flowers of frost on windows faded, and pipes burst and homes were flooded, and gardens turned to muddy patches, and the whole world started to relax, to sigh."

Winter in the narrator's northern industrial hometown of Newcastle, England, can seem particularly brutal, much like the city itself, which is dominated by the shipbuilding industry that employs most of the housing estate's fathers and sons (at least Dominic's part of it, anyway). Dominic's father is one of the blue-collar workers in the shipyards, but Dominic --- a quietly observant boy with a knack for putting words to paper ---dreams of a different sort of life for himself. These dreams become especially vivid when Dominic befriends his neighbor Holly, the artistically dreamy daughter of a draughtsman at the shipyard, whose quirkiness and ambitions for higher things are symbolized by her ambition to learn to walk a tightrope.

"A deeply personal coming-of-age story about family, social class, love and the artistic life --- all couched in exquisitely lovely prose."

Dominic is drawn to the lifestyle and aspirations hinted at by Holly and her family, but he is equally drawn to another kid from the neighborhood, Vincent McAlinden, a brutish but charismatic bully who both infuriates and fascinates Dominic. Vincent's aspirations are for cruelty and destruction, and in his darkest moments, Dominic is easily swayed toward joining Vincent in his deeds. The direction Dominic ultimately chooses will depend in large part on the kind of future he imagines for himself --- and the relationships he develops as a young person may in turn change that imagined future in ways no one could have foreseen. "We grow in order to discover ourselves," says one character. "But maybe we just discover ways of hiding our selves from ourselves." Throughout the book, Dominic finds himself grappling with what the nature of that true self truly is.

THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS is, at times, not an easy book to read. It includes scenes of cruelty and violence, including rape and the killing of animals. But, side by side with these gruesome scenes are passages of exquisite beauty. This juxtaposition is, of course, no accident --- it mirrors how Dominic experiences life. When Dominic sees his possible future --- particularly his literary talent and ambitions --- as being at odds with his working-class background, he gets in danger of losing himself. But, when he can reconcile the two, his life makes a lot more sense: "writing books must be like making ships, welding words and pages in pursuit of an elusive image of the finished perfect thing." THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS is both brutal and romantic, realistic and fantastical --- and it offers a coming-of-age story that won't soon be forgotten.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 23, 2015

The Tightrope Walkers
by David Almond