I love David Almond’s books, and have done ever since I first read Skellig, and then rushed off to read everything he had written. I was lucky enough this week to find two new books by him I hadn’t read; Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf, which I reviewed in the previous post, and The Tightrope Walkers, which I am about to review here.
The Tightrope Walkers is a novel for teens. It contains some violence and sexual content which means that it is not suitable for younger readers. Having said that, the material is entirely in context and is used in such a way that without it the book would be a pale shadow of itself. There is an episode of sexual violence which is quite disturbing, but taken in the round it is handled bravely and actually leads to some of the most beautiful, touching parts of the novel.
The book tells the story of Dominic Hall as he is born in a condemned slum at the edge of the Tyne and moves to a purpose built estate after the slum clearances make his family homeless. It tells the story of Dominic’s childhood against a world that is changing rapidly. His father works in the ship yards and fought in wars, a rough, damaged man who is full of anger at the world. His mother is full of hope for the future and nurtures Dominic’s nascent beginnings as an intellectual and writer.
Dominic is torn between the rough anger of his father, which he finds, in adolescence, has a place in his life and soul, and the life his mother wants for him. This turmoil is vividly shown in his relationships with the beautiful Holly Stroud, daughter of a draughtsman at the same ship yard as his dad, and the violent, fatherless Vincent McAlinden who boils over with anger so strong he destroys everything in his path.
The story progresses into the beginnings of Dominic’s young adulthood, but focuses in the main on his adolescence and the choices he must make, both emotionally and pragmatically as he and the world he inhabits explode with new possibility and danger.
The writing is stunning and beautiful. There is an ever present sense of otherworldliness that is there in all of Almond’s books, a connection with spirituality and mystery. Almond’s fascination with father/son relationships is beautifully drawn here, as is his exploration of madness in various forms. It is a glorious thing.
The book is suitable for boys and girls, I would recommend it to children aged 13 up, although younger, more precocious children might enjoy it, as long as you are aware of the content and prepared for whatever discussions you may have to have during the reading process.
I will leave you with an excerpt of Almond’s writing to whet your appetite:
Tyneside became monochrome: white patches of roofs and fields and tracks, black roads, dark walls, dark river, dark distant sea. Dad told of the freezing shipyards, of men in pullovers and hats and gloves and scarves working and cursing beside fiercely burning braziers. The men slithered across the salted decks and over salted gangways…We found birds lying dead in frozen gardens. Cars skidded and crashed. Diesel froze in the tanks of buses. Trains didn’t run. Schools were closed. Kids slid and sledged through the streets and lanes. Our skin was chafed and scorched. We knew chilblains and delight.