Mary Lawson: The Other Side of the Bridge (2006)

At the end of my introductory post to the Canadian Book Challenge I asked for recommendations and pburt mentioned how much she liked Mary Lawson’s books. That’s how I decided to read The Other Side of the Bridge.

We cannot experience everything in our life. Especially not the past, nor a way of life which is very different from our own. Luckily one of the many functions of literature is to help us experience other times and places. Reading this novel makes it possible to travel back in time, to a place and a way of life long gone; rural Ontario between 1930 to 196o, a harsh inhospitable place which drives strangers and young people away.

The novel tells two parallel but linked stories and moves back and forth in time. It starts in the 30s with the story of the brothers Arthur and Jake. Arthur is the reliable one. Stocky and solid. He wants to become a farmer just like his father. Jake who is much younger, is the good-looking one, the favourite of his mother. But Jake is also inherently mean. A manipulative bully with a sadistic streak which he manages to hide behind his good looks and alleged charm. Only Arthur seems to know about his brothers true nature. One day, on a bridge, fate strikes and sets in motion a tragedy which cannot be stopped anymore.

The second story line starts in the 50s and is told from the point of view of young Ian, the son of the local doctor. Because he is secretly in love with Laura, Arthur’s beautiful wife, he offers to help Arthur every Sunday on the farm.

The blurb states that the novel bears a resemblance to 19th century novels of provincial life. That’s not a bad comparison. But more than that it also reminded me of Greek myths in which you can see the doomed heroes move towards their destruction. The worst thing in the myth of Oedipus for example isn’t so much that he sleeps with his mother and kills his father – although that is certainly very bad – but that his father thought he could prevent this tragedy which had been predicted and through this very attempt at preventing it, he finally provokes it. While The Other Side of the Bride is no story of incest, it has a similar dynamic as Oedipus’ story. There will be a tragedy. We know it.  And no matter how much the people try to prevent it, it will happen anyway. But other than in greek myths, and that’s where Mary Lawson meets Ian McEwan, there is atonement too.

Everything that I said so far has more to do with the plot. The story tells a tragedy and how it happens but that is just one layer of the book and not even the one I liked best as I found it a bit too predictable. What I really liked about this book is the writing which is amazingly beautiful and contains many passages like this one:

It was September, the worst time of the year as far as Arthur was concerned – endless months of school ahead, cooped up in one stuffy schoolroom at a too-small desk, while outside the maple flamed red and gold and the air was clear and pure as spring water. Inside was the leaden boredom, outside was the sharp tang of wood smoke and the urgency of shortening days. You could smell the winter coming. You could see it in the transparency of the light and hear it in the harsh warning cries of the geese as they passed overhead. Most of all you could feel it. During the day the sun was still hot but as soon as it dipped down behind the trees the warmth dropped out of the air like a stone.

Somewhat later in the book there is this passage in which Ian and his friend Peter sit together

They sat on in silence, or almost silence; if you listened closely you could just hear a faint thrumming from thousands of wings. Beyond the dragonflies the sun was sinking slowly, casting its rays across the lake, and on the other side, everything, as far as the eye could see, was slowly dissolving into the haze.

Ian thought, If I love to be a hundred years old, I always remember this.

Apart from the central story of a tragedy, The Other Side of the Bridge is an excellent depiction of the Canadian home front during WWII. It shows the way Canada was affected by huge losses, how most of the young men didn’t return and many of those who did were maimed for life. The book would have been a worthy candidate for my readalong.

Through Ian’s story it is also a coming-of age tale and a look at the life of a country doctor in an isolated place like rural Ontario where the winters are so incredibly harsh that most foreigners and many natives flee the place.

I must admit I didn’t connect with the characters and their stories, I didn’t feel I could identify with any of them, but I’m glad I discovered Mary Lawson. Her writing is beautiful and the way the people and the place come to life is astonishing. They emerge from the pages and seem to be walking around before your very eyes. The way she writes about Canada is very nostalgic and at times I was wondering if the writing wasn’t to a large extent fuelled by homesickness as she seems to be living in England by now. I any case I want to read her first novel Crow Lake soon.

This review is my first contribution to the Canadian Book Challenge 6