The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo

There would be few Melbournians who cross the West Gate Bridge without a slightly heavy heart – the 1970 bridge collapse and the horrific tragedy of Darcey Freeman in 2009 weighs on us collectively. It is perhaps why Enza Gandolfo’s novel, The Bridge, resonates so deeply.

There are two stories in this book, linked by the Bridge. The first tells of 22-year-old Italian migrant Antonello, newly married and working as a rigger on the West Gate Bridge in 1970. When the Bridge collapses one October morning, killing 35 of his workmates, Antonello’s world crashes down on him.

Another jolt; the span was almost vertical now. A stiff-legged derrick loosed from its mooring catapulted toward the river, its long metal arms flaying violently, a giant possessed. And now the men: the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air and into the river below. They were screaming, but their cries were muffled by the bridge’s own deathly groans.

In the second story, set in 2009, Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, are on the verge of finishing high school but a terrible and stupid mistake sets Jo’s life on a radically different course.

I won’t say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, however, I can say that the story moved me to tears a number of times, particularly in relation to Mandy’s (Jo’s mother) despair and fear for her child, made more complex by her own guilt and shame. Jo says of Mandy –

She’d expected her mother’s love to be unconditional – wasn’t that what people said about parents, they loved you unconditionally? …Now she knew her mother’s love had limits and there were things even a mother found difficult to forgive.

The themes of grief and guilt are explored in a number of ways – grief for those we have lost, grief for lost possibilities, grief over wrongs,  survivor guilt and moral culpability – and Gandolfo ties them together in Antonello and Jo’s stories in a powerful way –

How did people keep living when grief was weighed down by guilt?

There are other themes – class, shame, and forgiveness, and again, I am reminded of Small Wrongs, a book that explores the idea of remorse and forgiveness within a legal context. In particular, this quote –

 The moral question was not what I would do if someone I loved fell victim to a horrible crime. The moral question was what I’d do if they committed one.

Gandolfo’s writing is straightforward and unembellished but compelling nonetheless. Whilst I wasn’t re-reading and savouring particular sentences, my overall impression by the end was that The Bridge is an engrossing and well-written story. And like all the very best stories, it left me wondering – how does a ‘punishment’ fit the crime when a life is lost and a family is left to grieve forever?

She’s pleaded guilty and is waiting to be punished. In her statement, she writes: I’ll get the punishment I deserve, but it won’t ever be enough.

4/5 I reckon if the Stella judges were all Melburnians, it would be the winner.

He remembered his mother cooking him a big breakfast of scrambled eggs with cavolo nero she’d collected the previous day, along with brassica, pigweed, and wild fennel on one of her scavenging excursions around Cruickshank Park. ‘Lucky for us,’ she said to Antonello, ‘the Australiani don’t understand these plants…’

There’s a recipe in Hetty McKinnon’s fabulous book, Community, that I love – cavolo nero and borlotti beans with tomatoes, croutons, and basil cream – you’ll have to get the book for the recipe but I can assure you it’s worth it.

17 responses

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  3. Yes, yes indeed. I want this to win too, this is what literature is *for*, to shine a light on complex issues that are grounded in real life. And #Snap, I hardly ever get emotional when reading but this one really got to me.

    • It’s easy to look at an issue and declare what parts are morally/ legally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but this story shows that that’s not real life. We might know what is right or wrong but it doesn’t take away the pain, or grief, or guilt, or shame, or regret…and so how do you go on living with those feelings? It was that stuff that made me cry (and I cried a few times, not just the obvious plot-turn bits).

      I still have half the shortlist to read so probably can’t comment with certainty yet but I agree, this is what literature is for.

      • So true: I know a man who killed an elderly pedestrian on a wet, dark night – she was wearing all black and she stepped out onto the road in front of him – he was only doing the speed limit, but she was old and the injuries killed her. The inquest found he was not at fault at all, but twenty years later he still felt responsible and guilty. So even the innocent can feel guilty if they take a life…

    • I considered the egg sandwich but as soon as I read the bit about the cavolo nero I could only think of that delicious salad!

      I think we’re all in heated agreement about how engrossing and provocative and important this novel is!

  4. This is the one I’m looking forward to most. Both my parents are from the western suburbs and I spent 25+ years travelling under that bridge and seeing the memorial plaque to those killed when the bridge collapsed.

    • I think you’ll enjoy it Kim – the descriptions of the Bridge and the surrounding suburbs are very well done, and it’s hard not to be pulled into the story.

    • Also, I have never seen the memorial but plan to go after reading this book. My kids play lacrosse and in winter we cross the Bridge regularly, so we’ll be making a side-trip soon.

  5. Pingback: ‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo – Reading Matters

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  7. Great review Kate. Mandy disappointed me – not because of her guilt (she did play a role in Jo’s actions but would she really have been able to stop Jo given the tension in their relationship) but because she couldn’t give her daughter a hug. It’s something I’ve thought about every now and then, but I just can’t IMAGINE not folding my child into my arms – unless my child had done something coldly, intentionally, premeditatedly brutal – but I could UNDERSTAND her because Gandolfo writes her so well, doesn’t she.

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