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

31 thoughts on “Mary Lawson: The Other Side of the Bridge (2006)

  1. This sounds like terrific book. I really like the way the prose is styled based upon the quotes that you posted. It seems simple and direct it has the potential to convey great depth and poignancy.

    My only issue is that as of late, when I read a book whose characters I become attached to, but that has a sense that something really tragic is coming throughout the story, I find the book difficult to take. This story seems as if it might do that to me.

    • Her prose is really wonderful. The way she creates a sense of place and time is almost magical.
      There is more than one tragedy actuall, they keep on coming. But there are families like that. I liked that she didn’t try to explian why Jake, for example was so mean, he just was.
      The WWII bits got to me. There is a lot to like here.

  2. As I was reading your review, in the back of my mind I was asking myself, “Can this be the same Mary Lawson of ‘Crow Lake?'” I was thinking of writing an article on “Crow Lake,” but I now think (after reading the above) that it would be much more interesting to see what you think of the book, and what connections you can make between the two books. Please, get to it soon! I can’t wait to see what you have to say!

    • I would have liked to read your review. You can still write it. I am very interested in reading Crow Lake because it is from the point of view of a woman and some of the topics are recurring. It would be interesting to see how it is handled with this point of view. I’m sure I’ll get to it but not so soon I’m afraid.
      Did it alos have such a Greek tragedy feel? Are the characters as doomed as here?

      • My memories of the book are not precise right now, which is why I think you have more opportunity for dealing with it first. First of all, it says on the blurb on the back of “Crow Lake” something about modern Greek tragedies (1901-1945 ish, to go by the correct literary designation, though I seem to remember that “Crow Lake” verges into the contemporary–1945-present time–as well), or modern versions of Greek tragedies, so your conclusion about the feel of Lawson’s other book is probably spot on, though I can’t say for sure, because I’v never read it. But at this point, I’m far enough away from having read it to prefer to hear your conclusions to my own–you have such a sense of upper Ontario already from having read just the one. And if this is the way she writes, with focus on connecting the modern-contemporary to the ancient, I feel sure that you’ll probably write profitably about “Crow Lake” as well (some writers like Lawson get in a productive groove and go on from there, it seems). One thing that struck me: Margaret Atwood has a few novels in which sciences such as biology are a part of the symbolism or imagery of the novel; something is said on the back of “Crow Lake” about sciences (I forget exactly which one), and this might be another clue into the book: i.e., does this mean that she’s an Atwood fan and imitator, too? would be my question. Have fun! I’ll keep up with your blog so I don’t miss what you have to say.

        • That’s interesting. On the back of my book they don’t mention Greek tragedies.
          There was nothing about science in this book with the exception of one charcater being a doctor but he has no scientific aspirations. His charcater is used to show how forlorn the place is that they have only one perosn dealing with everything, accidents, childbirth, measels…
          I think she is much more archaic. Or rather the world she describes is more archaic as Atwood’s world. As much as I liked her, I like Atwood better, she seems more original, more varied.
          I finally managed to add your blog to my reader.

          • Thanks for adding my blog to your reader, I like making new friends. I’ve had yours on mine for a while, but had to go back separately to check the box for receiving e-mails, which for some reason didn’t get it automatically (even though I actually WAS receiving the e-mails). I really like your site and the frequency with which you post–I try to do about a post a day, but this weekend I got a little lazy and didn’t do but one post, about three hours ago (it’s Sunday evening here now). Sometimes the pace is a little too much, but I really enjoy blogging and all the fellow writers I’ve met (including you!).

            • You’re a busy one then… I’ll try to keep up. Last week was very hectic what with the freshly pressed and all. It’s nice too meet new and interesting people and connect.

  3. I read Crow Lake a while back and all I remember is enjoying it. I’ve been holding off on The Other Side of the Bridge, as I thought it was a sequel of sorts and that I let too much time lapse. However, from your review it sounds like it would work as a standalone.

    And to Guy above, if you change your mind we’d love to have you join us!

    • I don’t think this is a sequel at all but there seems to bea similarity. It can certainly be read as a standalone. Pburt who commented it liked this one better while her mother, as far as I remember preferred Crow Lake.
      I hope Guy sees your comment.

      • Yes my mother does prefer Crow Lake and she thinks it may be because of the subject matter – she was orphaned at the age of four with her sisters being 10 and 16. I am glad you liked the book – she is so good at portraying place and this trait really shines in Crow Lake. I like the other side of the bridge because of Arthur – I was lucky enough to have an Arthur in my life. I think it shows how our own backgrounds effect the books we are drawn to.

        • I totally agree with this. I think I might identify more with Crow Lake. Adoption has been an important topic in my life as well (although I wasn’t adopted, my brother was).
          I’m looking forward to reading it and am really grateful you recommended her. She is terrif at making a place come to life.

  4. I saw that it reminded you of Ethan Frome somewhat. I’ll have to read it to see if I feel the same. I enjoyed Ethan Frome, but it is a bleak story. But I remember the writing was beautiful. thanks for the tip. I’ve been wanting to explore authors from different countries for a project next year.

    • Ethan Frome is very bleak. I think when we want to read from other countries we often firget how many English epaking countries there are which are neither the UK nor the US. I’m glad I participate in an Australian and a Canadian Challenege and Mel’s Irish Short Story Week.
      Maybe you would like to start with Crow Lake. Some like this one better, others the other one.

    • I hope to get to it but I know by now if I review an author twice in a short time, people are not interested at all, so I’ll wait a few weeks.
      I suppose that Steinbeck’s people are similarly doomed, only in a hot setting which is inhospitable too.

  5. While reading your review “Of Mice and Men” flashed through my mind, but then I don’t think the two novels have much in common except for the rural background and two very different men as main characters. I’m glad you enjoyed the book, even if you couldn’t really connect with any of the protagonists. That would have been a great bonus.

    • Of Mice and Men isn’t an entirely bad comparison. There is something Steinbeckian (or should it be Steinbeckish?) going on here. You are right, if I had connected with those charcaters it would have been amazing. I have hopes I will with the figures in Crow Lake.

  6. I like the quotes you have chosen…they are really beautiful. It reminds me of a book I read recently by John Connolly, the story isn’t thatinteresting but the writing keeps me going.

    That Oedipus myth is something I haven’t heard before…strange one I should say.

    • It is a beautiful book. I liked the description of the friendship between Ian and Peter. Peter is interesting as he is a Native American.
      The myth of Oedipus is famous in the West. Some psychlogical theories are based on it but i have a bit of a problem with that (Freud pretended that evry small boiy secrtely wanted the mother and wished to kill the father…). The myth is tragic as Oedipus father thinks he can prevent being killed by his son by giving the boy away but he is found and adopted by another family and when he is grown up he comes back, falls in love with the mother… It means you cannot esacpe fate. The characters in the book are like that, they seem doomed.

  7. I’ve heard good things about this author and really must try her some day. At the moment, I’m not in the mood for any more war-related stories (I’ve overdosed recently!). But I’ve noted her name and will definitely bear her in mind.

    • I can understand that but I think you would apprecite the writing. I will see what Crow Lake has to offer. If that doesn’t mention WWII, then it could be your starting point.

  8. Beautiful review, Caroline! I loved the second passage that you have quoted. I have never heard of Mary Lawson and I didn’t know that this book won the 2006 Booker prize. I thought I knew the names of nearly all the writers who have won Booker prizes. It looks like Mary Lawson was a secret waiting to be discovered – atleast for me. Thanks for writing about this book.

    • Thanks, Vishy and you’re welcome. She is a really fine writer. The second quote was one of my favourite passages. Maybe it’s worth having a look at her first novel as well, if you’d like to read her. I think she was only longlisted, or even short liested but the prize went KIran Desai that year, still she is a wonderful writer.

  9. I have Crow Lake but I think I’m going to have to look for (or buy) this one as well. I’ve yet to read her, but I am also reading books for that same challenge (am hoping now that things are settled after my vacation I can get back into the swing of things–my reading has been so off lately), so will keep this in mind!

    • Opinions are divided, some perfer this, others prefer Crow Lake. I have a feeling I will like Crow Lake even better. In any case I haven’t read any reviews in which someone didn’t like her books in general. It’s that old fashioned story telling which is very appealing and she just has a way with words and captures place so very well. I hope you will like her. If it hadn’t beenn for this challenge, I wouldn’t have read her.

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