Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Enza Gandolfo's The bridge

Our August book was Enza Gandolfo's second novel, The bridge, a powerful book inspired by the 1970 collapse of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge.

The novel is told in two parts - the first surrounding the 1970 bridge collapse, and the second being set in 2009 and telling the story of another tragedy involving the bridge, this time a fatal car-crash in which the young driver survives. Eventually, the two stories are linked.

First impressions

These include two from members who didn't make it to the meeting. Rarely for us, there were no naysayers.
  • enjoyed reading the book but it's very sad; engaged more with the story of Jo, the young car-driver, empathising with her lack of confidence; and
    loved the humanity of the legal aid lawyer.
  • found the story and writing style very engaging.
  • was crying at the end; a really good novel though devastating at times; enjoyed the way it delves into different lives.
  • engaged very quickly with the book; the characters are well-drawn.
  • brilliant book; engaged most with the story of Antonello, the bridge-worker traumatised by his experience of the collapse; loved how he finally came to terms with his trauma, and liked his relationship with his wife; also liked the relationship between Jo's mother and legal aid lawyer Sarah.
  • very powerful novel, particularly as she had a similar experience when young. (She was being driven in a car by a drunk driver who crashed, resulting in the death of one of the passengers. died. We were stunned.) Gandolfo got the grief right, the different ways people respond to grief. 
  • loved it; exquisite and deserving of its Stella Prize shortlisting; engages you immediately; powerful, authentic, empathetic.
  • beautifully crafted novel which presents flawed characters with whom we can engage and empathise; loved the the bridge title because it plays both literally and metaphorically.

See? We were all very impressed.

Rest of the conversation

As often happens when there's no dissension, the conversation was quieter, but we did still find a few things to talk about!

We talked about the writing. We were impressed with how quickly Gandolfo engaged us in the story, and how well constructed the novel is. Gandolfo developed the links between the families well without making it feel contrived. One member commented on the scene where the police wake Mandy up to tell her about the accident (p. 110) and she tries to tell herself it's a dream. Clever, and believable.

We also loved her evocation of place. Melbournites felt she got Melbourne right, particularly the Yarraville area (albeit Yarraville is gentrified and very different now.) This helped the novel's authenticity.

A major strength of the novel is its characters. We all had our favourites, but overall we found the characters believable and relatable, even minor characters like the couple at Port Arlington with whom Jo stays when she runs away.

We all felt sorry for Jo, recognising that there but for the grace of God ... most people get away with their mistakes, but every now and then it all goes awry. We agreed that Jo was not completely to blame, that her mother, the adults at the party, the friends who insisted they stay for one more drink, all had a hand in what happened. Of course, we also accepted that Jo took the wheel and carries the final responsibility.

We thought Jo was a strongly drawn character. We loved her vulnerability, her sense of feeling unloved and of losing her friendship with Ashley as their lives started to diverge. It's classic "teen stuff" but real as well. We felt the description of her not wanting to open her eyes after accident was real. Her rejection of her friends and Ashleigh's boyfriend who tried to contact her was also understandable, but sad.

The other main character is Antonello/Nello who physically survives the bridge crash but suffers PTSD which affects the next decades of his life, his relationship with his gorgeous wife Paolina, and  his whole family. At one point in the novel, he hears his daughter saying to Paolina, "Don't you dare die first and leave us with Dad." Heartbreaking, but understandable given his remoteness. It's not until after Ashleigh's death that he starts to fully realise the choices he's made and their impact. He says:

For years, the most persistent impulse was towards death; a desire to stop living … But life didn’t stop. It went on whether you lived it or not. You have to choose life. This is what he needed to tell them – if you stop living, you may as well die. If you stop living, you aren’t going to be able to love again, and everyone you know will pay for that, everyone.

Nello's wife, Paolina, is the most empathetic person in the families. She grieves her grand-daughter but she also feels for Jo.

Most of us were disappointed in the mothers - in Jo's mother for not being able to reach out to her daughter, and Ashleigh's mother, a high school principal after all, for having no empathy for Jo. And yet, Gandolfo encourages us, with her writing, to understand and not judge these women.

Sarah, the legal aid lawyer, was also mentioned by several of us. She has her own difficult back story, but is committed to social justice and empathetic to Jo's mother Mandy with whom she works to develop a rapport, initially in order to understand Jo more so she can defend her in court. Sarah works hard to be a lawyer with integrity but recognises how easy it is to twist justice:

That was the danger of a good story: you could elicit pity and empathy for even the worst sociopath … Sarah believed telling good stories, the ones people listened to and were swayed by, was a responsibility. It worried her that some people did not take it seriously enough.

One of the novel's themes concerns social mobility, for which the bridge functions as an effective metaphor. Not only do bridges symbolise progress, but Westgate was also going to play a role in reducing class distinction by making it easy for movement in the city. There wasn't necessarily a lot of support for this: "'We don’t want those rich bastards coming over to the west', was the general sentiment". Gandolfo gives wonderful life to the migrant community of the time, conveying the respect that developed between migrants and Australians (as well as the more commonly portrayed antagonism.) We liked Antonello's reciprocated love for his non-migrant boss. As the book progresses, the social mobility often found in migrant families, occurs in Nello's family with his children moving into comfortable middle class lives.

One member commented that the word "love" keeps popping up in the novel, and yet it never feels cloying. Love - parental, marital, between friends - is an important part of the novel, and its resolution. Other themes relate to forgiveness, revenge and responsibility.

We also briefly discussed the ending. We thought the novel finished well, resolving many issues, but realistically. Jo's sentence is right, and she takes the right attitude to it. We see her accepting responsibility and developing resilience.

We agreed that this would be a good book for year 11/12 reading lists. It shows that nice people make mistakes, that bad things can happen to good people. It's a book imbued with a deep understanding of humanity, that forces us to look beneath the surface of people, their actions and feelings.

A member shared an ABC Radio National interview with the author.

Finally, for some light relief, we shared stories about our own kids' brushes with the police, including two called by the police to pick up their inebriated, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths teenage daughters from the police station! Amazing how, after all these years together, we can still learn new things about each other!

Present: 6 members


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