The Bridge is a heartbreaking novel about tragedy and survival; about guilt and forgiveness.
The opening chapter depicts the construction disaster in 1970 when a slab of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and injuring 18 others. Antonello, an Italian migrant from Footscray was a survivor. Many of his friends, new Australians mostly, were not so lucky. We see the families that were destroyed; the hopes that were dashed. As Antonello attends a succession of funerals over a few days, they blur into one. But some of the dead, now just names on a plaque, were real people who are still missed by the ageing survivors. And Antonello can't help feeling that he knew that corners were being cut. The engineers said it would be OK, but Antonello knew deep down that they were wrong.
Thirty nine years later Antonello's family is doing well. His kids have firmly entered the middle class as the Western suburbs start to gentrify. Antonello's granddaughter Ashleigh is in her final year at school - just the VCE standing between her and a prestigious university place studying law.
Her friend Jo is rather the opposite. Not that academic, a bit plain, living with her mother who works shifts to pay the rent on a house in the shadow of the bridge that defies gentrification.
A night out, a poor decision, and life will never be the same again. The decision is spur of the moment but the consequences unfold piece by piece. Nobody meant anything bad to happen, but there's a price to pay. Just like Antonello so many years beforehand, the survivors have to learn to live with themselves, their guilt and their grief. They have to plan for a future from a suddenly unpromising starting point.
The story shifts points of view several times but manages to carry this off. It gives us an insight into the guilt and grief of two families confronting unwelcome reality. It is painful to read, it feels real and raw. The linking of the past and (almost) present is done so effortlessly, the parallels clear but not laid on too thick.
The sense of place is spot on too. The Bridge is one of those rare books that depicts the scenes so clearly that you want to visit the scene, to pay respects to tragedies both real and imagined.
It is difficult to say more without spoiling the novel - but even a fortnight later, thinking back on this novel is enough to bring on goosebumps.
The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is the second of Rose Tremain’s short story collections that I have read and like those in Evangelista’s Fan, they are as good as I always expect of her writing. I still find the short-story form a little disappointing, but these are all interesting, unusual and thought provoking stories.
I bought this collection on the strength of the title as I know nothing, other than the obvious, about Wallis Simpson. I certainly didn’t know about her final days, when her lawyer assumed power-of-attorney over the bed-ridden Duchess, who was suffering from dementia and had lost her power of speech.
Tremain’s story imagines the confusion in Wallis’s head during those days, when her ‘carer’ demands she try to remember details of her life with the Duke of Windsor - who is a pale and shadowy, figure barely existing in her memory, compared to the more vivid recollections of her previous husbands. It did make me feel a little more sympathetic towards her.
Some of the other stories include:
A redundant East German border guard in 1989, tries to reach Russia by bicycling across Poland.
A jilted man gets his revenge after 30 years
A character in an impressionist painting tries to escape from the domestic scene.
A single woman brings up her niece after her sister dies and her brother-in-law takes refuge in the local asylum
And my favourite: An elderly man attempts to improve the lot of some penguins in a Wildlife Sanctuary (and in particular his sponsored penguin) and at same time come to terms with a childhood tragedy.
As with Evangelista's Fan , a possible theme might be 'unfulfilled hope' - so not a jolly book, but each story says something worth thinking about.
Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic.
The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else.
On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read.
Scrublands is first rate crime fiction set out in the scrublands north of the Murray river on the NSW/Victoria border.
Martin Scarsden is a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, sent out to Riversend to cover the first anniversary of a mass shooting (pun intended) where the priest had shot five parishioners on a Sunday before being shot himself by the local policeman. Scarsden finds a town with a dwindling population, the pub/hotel shut six months ago, the motel barely surviving and the only coffee in town is served at the second hand book shop. Dust and tumbleweed blow through the town.
And as Scarsden picks at the scabs left by the shooting, he uncovers a plot of intrigue and lies. Nobody is quite who or what they seem. The ripples spread far and wide - down to the Murray, to Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Cambodia and Vietnam. As the stories start to emerge, and as they start to contradict one another, the stakes get higher.
The plotting is tight and relatively easy to follow for a twisty thriller. The characters feel real even if they do labour under Dickensian names (the femme fatale is Mandalay Blonde; the villain is Harley Snoutch; the bombastic TV journalist is Doug Thunkleton. The police investigation is credible; as the body count rises so too does the national attention from both journalists and senior law enforcement. The actions even in this abnormal situation seem rational and proportionate.
The sense of place works well too. Riversend feels real - and reminds me quite a lot of Karakarook in Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection. The searing heat and desiccation, the vast wilderness, the distance.
The only shortcoming was a sense that, just occasionally, the novel was too long and slightly repetitive. But in answer of the criticism, the repetition did a good job of helping the reader keep the many moving parts neatly arranged.
This is an accomplished work and it will be fun to see whether Martin Scarsdale returns.
Heads of the Colored People is a witty and - at times - savage portrayal of middle class African Americans. Through many of the stories there is a thread of expectations - the expectations of the black community of their own; the expectations of the white folk; and the expectations of the individuals themselves. There is a sense that it is very hard, if not impossible, to be an individual who just happens to be black. There are roles to be played and if you don't conform to the expectations, someone is going to get hurt.
The stories themselves are very varied. We have a crotchety university professor who hoped for a quieter life by working at the black university; warring mothers waving qualifications at one another when botching about one another's daughter; a social media whore; a disabled guy and his stalker. None of the stories is boring, and for the most part they work well. Some of the stories interlink or have common characters - and I might spot more links if I went back to the beginning. This builds a sense of community and shows how some of the characters resent having expectations forced upon them while they force their own expectations on others.
Despite the darkness, there's a healthy dose of positivity. Many of the characters are upwardly mobile - even the victims don't have a sense of victimhood. Poverty is something that happens to other people, although the legacy if poverty is hinted at occasionally - for example, one story centres around the first time a black person tasted potato bread.
The writing is clear and the narrative direction is clear. None of those opaque short stories with ambiguous endings here. It's not pretending to be arty, but is quietly effective in giving the reader both entertainment and an insight into a community that may not be well known or well represented in literature.
The collection is short - always a relief with short stories as collections can feel quite choppy quite quickly - and the individual stories feel just the right length, long enough to make their point but short enough not to go stale.
Really, a very good collection.