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The Tightrope Walkers



The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
Candlewick, March 2015
Reviewed from an ARC

Oh, I am conflicted about this one. This is gorgeous, gorgeous writing — even the first line pulls you in and lets you know that you’re in for something unusual here (“I was born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then.”) With a careful balance of themes, metaphors, and images (tightrope walking, but also literally happening, the cane of Miss O’Kane, generational hopes and disappointments), this is meticulously crafted. It’s also got unsettling violence, and the ways it uses this element has got me asking hard questions.

Make no mistake, the writing is fine — beautiful, specific, and evocative (“I saw their boy, the boy who was supposed to walk away from all of this towards the sky.”) Dominic’s narration is full of images, and it resonates on many levels.

“And I heard the silence of the world that was not silence but was filled with traffic and factory and shipyard din and the cries of children and the songs of birds. All the sounds that made the song of this part of the earth, all the sounds that made our local music of the spheres. And I heard the laughter of my friends and of the lovely Holly Stroud, and I knew I’d hear the silent  piece forevermore, even when there was no piano anywhere to be seen.”

The spoken dialect is rich; it makes you want to read it aloud, to revel in it.

The setting is specific, full of details. Nothing in this book feels hazy or out of focus. The time period, the location are fully realized, crystal clear — the strict religious dogma, the stark class conflicts. And the hyper focus of the story works, for the most part. The characters are almost all larger than life. All the moments and beats of the plot feel elemental. It’s all full of significance and fraught beauty. The allegorical elements somehow slip neatly into the realism, fit right in the detailed setting. There are biblical allusions (Vincent as the devil, as a demon, Dominic and Holly as Adam and Eve — Adam tempted this time), and they are rich and rewarding.

I seem to be leading up to my big but, here. So — but. I’m wondering about Dominic’s relationship with Vincent. It’s stormy and dark and passionate. I wonder about all that darkness, though. I mean, I understand why it’s there thematically, and because of who both those boys are. What I’m wondering about REALLY are the implications of how darkness is used in this novel. Why the stormy and dark relationship has to be the male+male one. Why the girl has to get raped in the service of this boy’s coming of age.

I wonder if part of my reaction is that despite being 300+ pages, this feels like quite a fast read. The chapters are short, and the end comes up quickly — much too quickly. I wonder, too, if part of my reaction is the allegorical feel of much of this story. Holly is both a character and an idea, after all, and that’s actually an awkward combination. (And that’s not unique to Holly; it’s all the characters. With some of them, it actually enhances them — Vincent is cruel but captivating, heartless and heartbreaking.)

I don’t know what to do with all this ambivalence toward a novel that is also so stunning. I wonder if these are the questions RealCommittee will ask about this book. I have no doubt they’re looking at it closely; it’s got six stars and Almond is a past winner. Plus, there’s a lot of good here. With multiple reads and deep conversations about it, they could find themselves less unsettled than I am. What about you?

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. Karyn Silverman says

    I thought the writing was magnificent but I actually didn’t (couldn’t?) finish this (I did the read half, skip a quarter, then skip between reading and skimming the rest). It was too much, too relentlessly full of darkness for me and, unlike you Sarah, I thought it moved at a snail’s pace, and I just couldn’t be in that mental space for that long. Also it felt like last year’s True Tale crossed with Mal Peet’s Life, and I thought both of those handled the thematic scope better, but that’s not entirely fair since they also each only handled half the scope of what’s happening in Tightrope Walkers. I do believe this has a real chance and will definitely be in any serious conversation, and I think your points about the way Holly is a vehicle for the relationship between the boys are totally spot on — but I can’t imagine how that conversation would play out with a RealCommittee, because whether that counts as a literary criteria is pretty subjective.

  2. I finished it. (I liked Skellig so much that Almond has instant credibility with me.)

    However, I would call this a “new adult” book, as was the Mal Peet book cited by Karyn: the main characters are followed into their late teens/early twenties (or older) and are establishing the permanent contours of their future lives. Not the primary 12-18 Printz audience .

    It’s got a lot of literary appeal, though. I found the characters predictable but compelling; the specificity of the book’s setting, the industrial center Newcastle-on-Tyne during its economic decline, provided plenty of opportunity for each character to be developed in a distinct way. The older generation of characters played varied and important parts in the novel, which was refreshing. Most of the narrative tension came from the dynamic between the “good” boy and the “bad” boy (was the bad boy going to knock the good boy off the tightrope leading to success?) I agree that the “good” girl exists mostly as an adjunct to the boys.

    But this story has been told before, ad infinitum. Is the setting or characterization or phraseology in the novel therefore so extraordinary that the book is best in show for 2015? I don’t think so; THE TIGHTROPE WALKERS is a good read but not a literary triumph.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      It’s a little heavy handed, too (and like Clay, feels like a working out of memories/thoughts/ideas/emotions of the author’s own childhood). I love Almond as a general statement; hoping Ella Gray has the zing this didn’t entirely manage.

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