This book is a mess! Strangely, that is a very huge compliment. The Bridge is a messy exploration of tragedies and the aftermath of guilt, healing, forgiveness, redemption and justice. However, it is not as linear as the previous line sounds. It is way messier. The book is a mess because the tragedies are well captured, the characters are well developed and the writing is unrelentingly bleak. The Bridge leaves you in a mess of emotions long after the last page is turned.
On October 15, 1970, Australia witnessed its worst industrial accident; a span in the uncomplicated Melbourne West Gate bridge collapsed. 35 construction workers were killed in the collapse and 18 of them were physically injured. Obviously, many more were scarred with trauma for lengthy periods. Based on this true event, Enza Gandolfo has written a story of two interrelated tragedies with many messed up characters. The first tragedy is the trauma of Antonello, a 22-year-old Italian migrant who is a rigger and worker in the bridge. Antonello swapped his shift with a colleague and it is the reason why he is not on the bridge when the large span collapses. However, he is close enough to witness the accident as it happens and sees his colleagues perish in an avoidable accident. The second tragedy occurs 39 years later. Jo and Ashleigh are teenage friends and in the final months of high school. They are preoccupied with the usual things that teenagers occupy themselves with and with plenty of dreams for the future. The closeness of their bond is matched by the disparity of their personalities that is further exasperated by class differences. In an unfortunate incident of drink driving, an avoidable accident occurs. The link between both tragedies is this – one of the teen girls is the granddaughter of Antonello.
The characters in The Bridge are well developed and the writing is plain, sincere and emphatic. Each of the characters carries around the baggage of emotions, truly damaged humans trying to make the best of the hand that fate has dealt them. From Antonello whose unhealed trauma of survivor guilt comes full cycle after almost 40 years of building walls around himself and keeping everyone out of his pain and misery, to Paolina his wife who sees the zest and vitality of her promising marriage sucked out by the trauma of the bridge collapse and her cancer diagnosis in later years, to their children Nicki and Alex who struggle to connect with a father who is present but absent at the same time, to Mandy, Jo’s mother who while wrecked with the guilt of inadequacy in her parenting skills that are laid bare by her daughter’s continuous comparison of her working-class stature and the more upwardly mobile middle-class status of her friends’ parents. That is not all. We still have Jo whose guilt and trauma is palpable and despite how strongly one feels drunk driving, it is hard not to feel her pain and loss. In all of this mess, my favourite character is Sarah. She is Jo’s lawyer and it is a character that allowed the author to excellently explore self-esteem and body image centred around obesity. Her challenges with how society perceives her due to her body shape is a timely reminder that such issues are deeply affecting its sufferers. More importantly, Sarah is a damn good lawyer who enters the world of her clients without blurring the lines between client and personal relationships. Her determination to make a difference in her world is infectious and instructive.
The only small quibble I have with The Bridge is that at some point the guilt narrative of Jo and Antonello becomes excessive and you feel some lines were being repeated with no additional significance. This excess could easily have made the book 10 to 15 pages lighter. This quibble is minor and does not distract from the profoundness of the novel. The Bridge is a well-written book and its messy characters linger for long and its themes are thought-provoking too. Highly recommended.