Set in Tyneside, England in the 1960’s, this magnificent, poetic novel examines a life balanced between past and present, good and evil, peace and violence.
Dominic is the son of a manual laborer at a shipyard, but in the post-war era of crumbling class hierarchies, his sharp mind gives him an alternative to this path, through a grammar school education. He dreams of being a writer and, though not altogether fitting in at the middle class school, he does well.
Dom has two significant relationships outside his family, both friends from early childhood. He shares the delight in literature and poetry, as well as hippie ideals, with artistic Holly Stroud, whose father has a white collar job at the shipyard; she represents the light, the angelic, the heavenly side of Dom’s life. Satanic Vincent McAlinden keeps his feet down in the muck, and he and Dom kill small animals, go thieving, fight and kiss. And in the middle is the tightrope that Holly can dance on, and Dom stutters and wavers across.
The ethereal writing shows both the glory of the heavens and the rooted appeal of the earth, and Dom drifts between both, neither wholly of one or the other. The lyrical passages in the hills outside their town sharply contrast with Dom’s matter of fact and matey day working in the shipyard.
Particularly lovely is the family dynamic. Mam leads the way, literally and metaphorically, for Holly and Dom on the tightrope. His father plays the hard man, but his tender feelings for his son emerge, and it becomes clear that it is only the timing of his birth that has destined him to work as a caulker.
Sadly, the deeply evocative reflection of both the time, and, particularly, the place, with its dialect and unfamiliar customs, will likely limit the appeal of this novel. However, mature teen readers will relish Almond’s assured, graceful, and fluid use of language.