Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review #21: Ascension by Steven Galloway

An excellent earlier novel from the author of the best-selling The Cellist of Sarajevo.

An imaginative mix of fact and fiction, this novel relates the life of Salvo Ursari, a gypsy from Transylvania whose parents were burned to death in their home by non-gypsies when he was nine. Salvo moves in with an aunt in Budapest where he eventually learns the art of walking the high wire from a tough master. He is later reunited with his brother and sister, who also become high-wire artists and, after a run-in with the Gestapo, the family flees to America where they become a famous act in the Fisher-Fielding circus.

The strength of this novel is the author’s ability to sustain tension. In a number of scenes on the high wire, (besides the circus, Salvo walks across the Grand Canyon and between the twin towers of the World Trade Center) the author has a remarkable ability to involve the reader in the action, although some of the descriptions of circus tricks are difficult to picture. The author offers an excellent description of the horrendous 1945 big-top fire in Boise, Idaho in which 112 people died, bringing the age of large tent circuses to an end. The book is also riddled with gypsy tales that have the feel of genuine folk stories straight from the forests of eastern Europe. Even though we meet the many people who have inhabited Salvo’s world, including the extended Fisher-Fielding family in constant struggle over control of the circus, it is his loneliness on the high wire that we feel most keenly.

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