Steven Galloway's "Ascension" starts with such dramatic tension that one surely must wonder how he can hope to maintain it for a whole novel. As I looked on in amazement, my breath held and my heart pounding, sixty-something Salvo Ursari made his way along a tightrope suspended between the two towers of New York's World Trade Centre. For Salvo it's the culmination of a successful career as one of the world's greatest circus performers.
Born into an impoverished Roma family in Transylvania, Salvo leads a typical gypsy childhood until a shocking event changes his life. Later, thrown out by the aunt and her "gadjo" who took him in, Salvo turns to performing acrobatic stunts in inns, the only way he can find to earn money. At one of his performances he meets a tightrope walker who teaches him how to walk the wire and subsequently manages Salvo and the troupe he puts together. But this is 1930s Europe and, as a Rom, Salvo's life is in danger. Fortunately, just as the threat of arrest inches nearer, an American circus impresario offers the troupe a way out of danger. Things look promising, a new start and the promise of a glittering future await the troupe in the United States but they can hardly have an idea of what troubles are in store too.
I might well have missed this book had I not read another of Steven Galloway's novels, "The Cellist of Sarajevo". The circus is not really a subject that interests me, and I have been disappointed by novels I have read about the Roma, finding them at best sentimental and over romanticised. Fortunately, I had enjoyed "The Cellist of Sarajevo" so much that I barely gave the cover blurb a second thought and rushed to pay for the book.
A little like watching a circus acrobat perform some amazing stunt, readers of "Ascension" do need to submit themselves to the experience and suspend belief until it's all over. The story itself is not an especially literary one, bordering on the ludicrous at times and regularly straying onto the verges of predictability, however it is well told and utterly absorbing. Chief among Galloway's particular writing skills is his ability to portray intensely dramatic situations and there are plenty of them in "Ascension". The language he uses is simple yet he manages to convey the scenes so vividly. If you know just how many aspects there are to the story - the way the loyalties of the troupe are tested, the powers struggle to control the circus, the persecution of the Roma across Europe, Salvo's personal struggle to submit to a life without the circus to mention just a few - you might think that Galloway has stretched himself and the bounds of the story too far. This could so easily have turned into a saga of immense proportions so it's all credit to Steven Galloway for bringing the novel to a satisfying close in just 288 pages. One aspect that I felt was not explored enough was Salvo's Rom identity; the book is peppered with traditional Roma tales, highlighting the importance given to storytelling within Roma culture but I felt that Salvo's connection with that culture tails off in a disappointing way when he gets to America.
Salvo Ursari is a wonderful character; bright and colourful yet not without subtle shades. He's not handsome but there is something very exciting and charming about him. He's warm and sensitive, loyal and serious. I found it interesting that while he seemed hardly to miss the Roma way of life, especially when he had left Europe, he had much more difficulty in giving up the wire; using the stories he'd been told as a boy he managed to keep alive for his children a culture they would never otherwise know, yet his "adopted" way of life was the one he felt more attached to. For fear of giving away major details of the plot, I can't reveal too much about the other characters but they are realistic and colourful if not always fully developed. The list of characters is limited, a wise decision on Galloway's part since the novel cover a man's entire life but I felt that the reader hardly got to know some of them before they were out of the picture.
In spite of these flaws, I derived much pleasure from reading this novel. When I'd finished reading it, the things I enjoyed stuck in my mind far more than the faults. A good novel must foremost entertain and "Ascension" is a really exciting and entertaining read.
Afterthought - "Ascension" was actually published before "The Cellist of Sarajevo". It missed my book radar first time round and appears to have been re-iisued in paperback on the strength of the later book. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a much more accomplished book and shows how the author has developed his craft.