I suspect saying a book is beautifully structured comes across like saying “she has a nice personality” about a blind date. But in Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge, a book I picked up without knowing anything about it, the beautiful structure propels the finely written narrative to a climax I couldn’t wait to reach, except that it meant reaching the final pages. In other words, this book was my best blind date ever.
The prologue, a scene of a childhood game between brothers, perfectly illustrates the relationship of silent, responsible Arthur — the one his mother depends on — and his charismatic, reckless little brother Jake — the one his mother loves. It’s a relationship that’s irrevocably changed by an incident on the titular bridge, complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Laura, and that comes to a head in the charged climax, decades later.
The book spans Arthur’s depression-era childhood on a farm in remote northern Ontario, through the devastation of World War II as seen from the home front, and into the 1960’s life of young Ian, who begins to work on Arthur’s farm as part of his attempt to escape from the expectation that he will become the next Dr. Christopherson.
The novel’s moody atmosphere is punctuated with humour, and Lawson brings alive the tiny (and fictional) town of Struan and its inhabitants through fabulous details of the doctor’s practice and life on the farm, for example.
By flicking back and forth through time, The Other Side of the Bridge sets up a sense of the stories colliding, but not of the how, until Lawson chooses late in the novel to reveal key scenes. We have information early on, like the fact that Laura becomes Arthur’s wife, or that Ian has a crush on his boss’s wife, that we don’t quite know what to do with until the story unfolds. That structure adds tension to the quiet world of Arthur Dunn and his young employee, both fighting against their seemingly inevitable fates.
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Other Side of the Bridge is a tender yet catastrophic story of family expectation, responsibility, and rivalry, with exquisite imagery and detail. I haven’t yet read Crow Lake, Lawson’s first novel, but The Other Side of the Bridge has ensured that I’ll be picking that one up, too.