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Titles similar to The Tightrope Walkers
Throughout his storied literary life, David Almond has continuously returned to familiar themes and turned his inquiring eye to the pull of opposites. Delving more widely than the familiar question of how good stacks up against evil, he also is curious about choice versus chance, the razor-thin difference between angels and devils, and whether God is watching us, helping us, or baiting us. The Tightrope Walkers is no different, in that all these notes are hit upon. But while many of his books, beginning with Skellig (1999), are netted in magic realism, this coming-of-age story, rooted in reality, makes the stark choices its characters face ones that will be readily recognized by readers.
Dominic Hall is born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, but thanks to a postwar building boom, his family moves to a council estate, a new community that throws together people who, in previous times, might not have known one another at all. Mr. Hall is shipbuilder, doing the gritty, filthy work of soldering and fitting. Next door lives the Stroud family. The mother is not seen, only heard, singing odd songs; the father works in the shipyards as well but in an office, crisply drawing plans. Their daughter, Holly, is a wonder—artistic, fearless, a faithful friend to Dominic, and the crucible for his hopes, dreams, and writings.
Into the children’s Eden of art and tightrope walking—a hobby with which they become strangely enamored—slithers Vincent McAlinden, a bottom-of-the-barrel punk who often successfully hides his humanity. Yet Holly sees enough in him to paint his portrait again and again over the years, while Dom, as an early teen, is drawn to him like steel to a magnet. Vincent grooms and shapes Dom until they are shooting small animals together, kissing each other, and literally pissing on Dom’s future when they break into the house of Dom’s mother’s employer, who has always supported his endeavors.
Vincent is the story’s malevolent throughline, just as the tightrope—the one project Mr. Hall and Mr. Stroud have ever collaborated on—is the symbol for the possibilities life may offer Dom and Holly. And just like life, the story doesn’t go the way you think it will.
Some books stand out for their characters, others for their sense of place, and some for their stories and themes. Almond has a facility for all those elements. The two most sharply drawn characters here are Vincent, as polluted as the Tyne but a force of nature nonetheless, and, rather surprisingly, Mr. Hall. He has spent his life at the bottom, fought a war with hopes of shaping a better world for his son, and labors mightily so his family can have more. At the same time, he sees his son as soft, is baffled by Dom’s writing talents, and resents the chances they offer.
Sometimes readers see this through as casual a movement as the flick of a cigarette ash. Vincent, too, is well aware of Dom’s abilities but less conflicted about what they mean. Dom is the personification of the unfairness of life, and there is only one thing to do about that: corrupt him. Vincent is one of those Heathcliff type of characters whose dark soul has tears through which goodness might slip, and yet events conspire to push away hope and happiness. Readers are left to wonder whether the cause is nature, nurture, or something more primeval and malevolent. The powerful ending brings Dom, Holly, and Vincent, now older teens, together once more in an epic scene of horror that is later followed by redemption. Can goodness come from evil? Does a flower grow out of the muck?
The Tightrope Walkers was published in the UK as an adult book, and it could very well fit under a new adult designation. What that means in this instance is that both young people and older will find much to ponder. Teens will feel the events most viscerally—the brutishness, the love, the rejections. Adults, meanwhile, will bring their own world-weary self-knowledge, which cuts in its own way. Wild and reckless, heartbreaking and hopeful—this elegy on life is not to be missed.
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