BookBrowse Reviews The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond

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The Tightrope Walkers

by David Almond

The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond X
The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2016, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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A moving coming-of-age novel that draws on memories of David Almond's early years in Tyneside.

David Almond has crafted just about the finest young fictional character I have ever seen. From the moment Dominic (Dom) Hall introduces himself he is so likable and relatable that I immediately cared what happened to him. He's not perfect. He's often confused. Sometimes he is badly behaved, shockingly so. But he has heart. And as he narrates his story, his humanity is so winning that I couldn't help but want to know that he ends up okay.

Dom is the only child of a laborer who works in the shipyards on the River Tyne, northern England. Born just after World War II, he lives with his mam and dad in cheap, lower-class housing. It's the mid-20th century though and things are changing. Laborers and their children have a vastly improved opportunity to advance in life. So even though Dom's best friend Holly Stroud lives in an identical house across the narrow street, her father has a white-collar job as a ship draughtsman. Holly and Dom play together, attend the same Catholic school and share their dreams. They also share a nemesis, Vincent McAlinden, class bully.

Right from the get-go McAlinden is a stinker and troublemaker. He lobs a sharp rock at five-year-old Dom and cuts the boy's head. Dom calls it McAlinden's mark. There will be more as the kids grow and Vincent careens in and out of their lives. He's three years older and can't seem to keep from harassing them. While Dom's father doesn't necessarily approve of Vincent's bullying, he does wish his bairn was a tad tougher. "Seems to me there should be a bit more of that Vincent McAlinden in him, and a little bit less of that Holly bliddy Stroud."

See there? Almond has an awesome ear for the dialect of this northern England working class. But more on that later.

At the opening of The Tightrope Walkers, Dom is starting to struggle with his identity. He is not like Vincent, nor is he even remotely like his own father. You see, Dom loves to write. "I loved to copy the letters and make the shapes," he says, "to hear the sounds and the rhythms, to see the visions that my words made in my brain. The ship sails. The bird flies….to write, to be allowed to write words of my own, sentences of my own, tales of my own."

Holly is an artist; maybe more like her draughtsman father than Dom is like his. And so the two bond over their shared creative abilities - Dom spinning stories, Holly drawing pictures. And when the circus comes to town they are both awed and inspired by the tightrope walkers; funambules, Holly's father Bill uses the French word. They add this to their joint play, stretching a rope in Dom's backyard, enlisting their dads' help to put a sturdier rope – eventually a wire – in place. They practice; Holly getting more and more graceful, Dom with the Hall family body type not so graceful, but skilled nonetheless.

Then some subtle and not-so-subtle changes occur as the kids take on the heavy mantle of adolescence. Dom becomes confused, overwhelmed with ideas and wild notions he's never experienced, and he hangs out for a few dreadful months with Vincent. It's a period during which Vincent inflicts more marks on Dom – though this time not on his head but inside it. And Holly fades into the background of Dom's life. There is heartbreak and there are hard times. It all unfolds so beautifully, punctuated by the rhythm and music of that dialect. Dom takes a temporary job at the shipyard and he writes about it:

"I scribbled in my book. 'He's putting us in a b-book,' said Jakey." Norman, "leaned in close, shyly, afraid to be intrusive….I touched his arm, pointed to his name, then showed him Jakey's and Silversleeve's. They shuffled closer, looked as well.
"T-telt ye,' said Jakey.
"ARE YEZ OOT?" [Shouted their boss]
"'Bugger off,' I muttered.
"I copied his words in capitals….They watched….'AA SAID ARE YEZ OOT?' I wrote his words again. They watched."

As an American I am fascinated, and even a little mesmerized, by the beauty of this dialect. Between the nowts and the owts and the oots and the bliddys, there is such a lovely rhythm. Of course, while watching a BBC program I need captions because my ear can't keep up. But as Almond/Dom writes it, the dialect becomes almost its own character, or, most certainly, it gives great depth to the characters speaking it.

I truly loved this book, loved Dom and Holly and even Dom's dad who is so baffled that a son of his can write with such skill. But better than merely loving it, this is an especially good book; a well-written, great story, with fantastic characterization and important themes. I miss Dom already.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in April 2015, and has been updated for the November 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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