Those feelings accurately describe my journey while reading David Almond’s The Tightrope Walkers. This book took me through a wide array of emotions, but in such a subtle way that I barely noticed until I was pushed from the safety of protagonist Dominic Hall’s familiar world, into the unknown and treacherous new territory of adolescence. David Almond takes readers across a tightrope of themes such as love, loss, and where we belong, as Dominic learns to balance all the things he’s feeling inside before he loses his balance for good.
Dominic recounts his childhood growing up in a “pebbledashed estate” in Northern England, with a shipyard father and a darkness growing inside himself. As he grows, Dominic discovers his talents as a writer, and his craving for the unordinary in his ordinary village. When a circus comes to town his neighbor, Holly Stroud, announces that they will grow up and become tightrope walkers. Soon, Dominic finds that he walks a tightrope between the steady Holly and the dangerous boy, Vincent McAlinden. As all three children near adolescence, Dominic chooses to face his fear of Vincent, and the two boys begin a relationship that rips him away from his friendship with Holly. During his time with Vincent, Dominic slips into a dual life: he receives good marks at school, plays sports, but always battles with the anger that lives inside him. He begins to fight, steal, and love Vincent in a way that frightens everyone, always teetering on the edge of falling into the darkness completely.
Absolutely all of Almond’s characters had a distinct voice, made even more unique by the various regional dialects that were written into the dialogue. Even the parents had their own motivations, flaws, and traits without overshadowing the young adults in this story. The relationships were flawed, and that’s what made this book for me. I didn’t feel like Dominic’s story was forced; the struggles and motivations were all laid before the reader, showing the best and worst parts of growing up. The relationship between Dominic and his father was particularly touching, and brought life to Dominic’s struggles, the family’s class, and the nuances that Dominic’s education brought to his friendships.
I enjoyed Dominic’s inner voice, which was lyrical and unsure, and forced me to pause and reflect on my own childhood desires as I read. However, I never formed an attachment to Dominic until the final third of the book due to his quietness with others. He allowed his passions to fester inside, rather than express them with Holly, who I felt was a safe haven for him throughout the book. Ultimately, this was a small con in light of Almond’s rich cast.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Almond’s antagonist, Vincent McAlinden, was one of the most terrifying characters I’ve ever encountered. Not because of any of his actions, (although he admittedly made me shudder when he talked of, and went through with, killing animals in his rage), but because of how his choices, and those of his family, haunt him. Vincent’s hopelessness burns like an ember, just waiting to flare. I spent the entire novel waiting for that burst of flame.
One of the overarching themes was that of escape: Can you escape who you truly are? Do you want to? Can you escape your father’s life? Can you escape your past? Such questions ultimately made the end of this book a little heartbreaking for me.
After a run-in with Vincent, both Holly and Dominic find themselves at a crossroads: To live a new life with a fresh start, or to fall into the life of their parents. In my mind, they chose the latter and I found myself (once again) frustrated with the choices Dominic was making. So often we think of our choices in terms of black and white, but this story reminded me that sometimes our “missed opportunities” are really just a fraction of the equation. In the end, I couldn’t hold that against Dominic.
While this book challenged me as a reader, it also made me feel an immense sense of comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who had grown up questioning who I was and the choices I had made. Almond’s gritty, honest storytelling gives the reader a safe place to wrestle with themes of light and dark, good and evil, who we truly are and what everyone sees. In this dark tale, these themes are woven masterfully throughout the narrative - touching every character in a distinct way and proving that no matter who we are, or what status we carry, we are all touched by the darkness inside ourselves.