Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* 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. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews

Finding balance

In this sprawling, emotionally enrapturing and mostly autobiographical tale, a talented lad comes of age in the harsh shadows of Northern England’s shipyards.

Dominic Hall was born in a hovel along the River Tyne in the 1960s. His severe father is still embittered from fighting in World War II, and his kind mother always wanted more for her sweet boy. Readers get key glimpses of Dominic’s growth and maturation over more than a decade as he befriends the two most disparate people his age in town—the artistic, free-spirited Holly Stroud and the tormented, reckless Vincent McAlinden. Dominic, a weaver of words, can’t help but be drawn to Holly’s self-expression and caring—but he can’t seem to suppress the darkness that attracts him to the wildness of Vincent’s uninhibited and dangerous life. When these two worlds inevitably collide, he is faced with making choices no one would ever want to make.

British author David Almond is an immensely gifted storyteller and a receiver of a Hans Christian Andersen Award, a Carnegie Medal and a host of other honors. The Tightrope Walkers is perhaps his most personal work, with so many similarities between the author and Dominic that fiction and reality become indistinguishable from one another. Almond’s phenomenal, philosophical writing balances well with his incisive clarity and arresting narration, making it immensely relatable.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Horn Book Guide Reviews

This brilliant novel follows Dom, a working-class boy in 1960s northern England, from ages five to seventeen. Dom forges his own values; succumbs to the lure of thug Vincent; falls in love with childhood pal Holly; discovers himself as a writer; and learns to walk a tightrope both literal and figurative. It's all unsettling emotion as Almond limns the nature of joy and rage.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews

Dom is a clever, working-class boy from the north of England, beloved of his teachers, the hope of his parents. It's the early 1960s, an optimistic period in British education, when the son of a shipbuilder could plausibly end up at Oxford. We follow Dom from ages five to seventeen as he forges his own values; succumbs to the lure of Vincent, the troubled, violent neighborhood thug; falls in love with his childhood pal Holly; and discovers himself as a writer. In all these areas of life he learns to walk a tightrope both literal and figurative. There's no cool here, no distancing irony or comforting hipness. It's all intense, profoundly unsettling emotion. Almond limns the nature of joy and rage in all his work, but here he pulls out all the stops. Through Dom we experience the unimaginable pain of his mother's death, the liberation and grief of rejecting religion, and the sadistic, homoerotic lure of Vincent. The violence is hard to take, all the more so because the writing is so controlled and powerful. The novel is Shakespearean in its breadth, earthiness, and emotional pitch. A mysterious tramp who wanders in and out of the narrative -- unspeaking, benevolent, holy -- is like a precursor of Skellig. It ends with a wedding and a newborn baby, but that final section is a Rorschach test for the reader. Is the overall mode comedic or tragic? There is much room for discussion in this difficult and brilliant novel. sarah elli Copyright 2014 Horn Book Magazine.

Kirkus Reviews

Dominic Hall is "a caulker's son, a tank cleaner's grandson" in the river town of Tyneside in northern England…but the boy dreams of writing.It's in Dom's blood to work in and "breathe the bliddy fumes" of the hellish shipyards. Is it pure snobbery, then, to aspire to the exalted, creative life his artist friend, Holly Stroud, lives with her fancy, wine-drinking father? Dom is torn. Maybe he wants to be more like Vincent McAlinden, the black-souled bully who initiates him into "scary ecstatic afternoons" of killing helpless creatures for fun, thieving and brutal fighting that ends in kissing. Is Dom a "tender innocent" or a "brute"? Is God a sentimental comfort, as he is to the silent tramp, Jack Law, or is he a cruel joke, a "creamy shining bloody body" suspended lifelessly by thin cords at the local Catholic church? As they grow up from bairns, Dom and Holly are tightrope walkers, literally and figuratively, trying to find their balance, hoping the inevitable falls ar en't too painful. The award-winning Almond poetically plumbs the depths of his 1950s and '60s childhood to explore themes of violence, war, God, creativity, beauty, death, art, the soul, our animal selves, whether we ever grow up or can really know each other…in short, life. (Fiction. 14 & up) Copyright Kirkus 2014 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews

In a powerfully realistic bildungsroman from award-winning author Almond (The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean), Dominic Hall, the son of a working man from Newcastle, seems destined for greater success than was possible for his ill-educated and often angry father. It's the late 1960s, and the times are definitely changing. Though Dom "was born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then," his quick mind has opened up to him a wider world of ideas and the chance to be the first in his family to attend college. Like good and bad angels on either shoulder, however, are his friends, Holly Stroud, an eccentric child of the middle-class, and Vincent McAlinden, an incorrigible and sometimes frightening troublemaker who shares the Halls' blue-collar background. Dom is drawn in opposite directions by these two as he negotiates a difficult, sometimes dangerous world. Almond's characteristic penetrating writing and finely drawn characters are on full display in a story more fully grounded in a specific and important historical moment than anything he has published heretofore. Ages 14–up. (Mar.)

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School Library Connection

Almond delivers a beautifully written tale of growing up in the north of England in the 1960s. Dominic Hall, born to a working class family, finds himself torn between the harsh life in the shipyards and the more scholarly and artistic world represented by his neighbor, Holly Stroud. Told from Dom's point of view, Almond includes songs and stories and Dom's writings and questions about God, religion, humanity, war, sex, etc. Dom is a tightrope walker, not only in the metaphorical sense but also literally. The novel is full of lyrical passages and wonderful characters. The vocabulary and violence make it most appropriate for older readers, but the lyrical qualities may make it move too deliberately for most high school readers. It would be appropriate for a hero's journey unit, although the violence and premarital sex may be an issue.

- Grades 9-Up - Suzanne Libra - Recommended

School Library Journal Reviews

Gr 9 Up—Dominic Hall is the son of a shipbuilder, living in modest conditions in mid-20th century England. As he grows up, he finds himself torn between two influences—the dreamy intellectual artist girl next door and the brutal outcast boy who seems to cultivate a darker side of Dominic's nature. His coming-of-age is marked by the ramifications of his choices between the two. The Tightrope Walkers is a tour de force. Almond's gifted prose sets readers firmly in the grim, gray-skied setting of a post-World War II British town inhabited by deeply layered and well-crafted characters. The use of a thick working-class dialect for many of the protagonists yields immersive dialogue that might have been off-putting in a lesser author's hands. Dominic's development takes place among moments of overwhelming bleakness and his experiences with the redemptive powers of human connection and art. The balance between these is precarious and realistic, and the span of years encompassed by the book flies by. The novel is by turns reminiscent of classic bildungsromans such as the Billy Elliott film, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Stephen King's IT, yet it retains a distinctive heart and voice of its own. While instances of violence are eventually tempered, it is best suited for mature readers. An absolute must-have.—Erinn Black Salge, Saint Peter's Prep, Jersey City, NJ

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Voice of Youth Advocates Reviews

Teenaged Dominic Hall is growing up as the brainy only child of a hardworking shipbuilder in Tyneside, England. Dom will likely be the first person in his family to attend university, and he and his working-class father have trouble understanding each other's worlds. Dom is in love with Holly Stroud, the ethereal neighbor girl. Not only is Holly artistic, her father works in the shipyard's office. This creates further tension for Dom's father, since Mr. Stroud comes home with his tie intact—and clean. Dom desperately wants to escape his bleak background and university seems the best way out, but he becomes intrigued by the brutal misbehavior of the slightly-older Vincent McAlinden. As Dom recognizes the precarious path he treads, he begins to withdraw from McAlinden and their at-times criminal activity. Before the end of school, though, a big complication with Holly means Dom and his love may be stuck in Tyneside for good. For this coming-of-age novel, author Almond draws upon his adolescence around the shipyards of northeast England. As such, this novel takes place in a very specific place, one with a distinctive language and atmosphere. Award-winning Almond uses extensive dialogue to bring the story to life. American readers may find the difference in culture interesting once they become familiar with the unusual spellings Almond uses to render the local accent. The novel's deeply drawn characters and slow pace will attract certain readers.—Anna Foote 4Q 3P J S Copyright 2011 Voya Reviews.