One of my favorite morning rituals is to grab my first cup of coffee, crawl back into bed, bolster my self with bunches of pillows, and read. Yesterday, I gave myself a Christmas treat and spent a long time immersed in a fabulous book. The Other Side of the Bridge, by Canadian author Mary Lawson, is based on a tale as old as time – the rivalry between two brothers. But in this luminous novel, set a in a small logging community in Northern Ontario, the writing makes this tale anything but ordinary.
Mary Lawson writes prose like Mary Oliver writes poetry. It’s simple, and spare, but so evocative of person and place that you want to re-read sentences just to savor their richness over again. “The lake was the town’s only asset. It was large…and deep, and very clear, surrounded on all sides by low granite hills studded with spruce and wind blasted pines. Its shore was ragged with bays and inlets and islands that you could spend your life exploring and never find half of them.”
She brings her characters richly to life as well, and when we meet Arthur and Jake Dunn in the Prologue, they are just boys, but their character and roles are alreay well defined. “Jake had dark blue eyes in a pale triangular face and hair the color of wheat. In build, he was slight and reedy (“frail” was the word their mother used) and already good looking, though not as good looking as he would be later. Arthur, five years older, was big and slow and heavy, with sloping shoulders and a neck like an ox.”
The story follows these boys through the mid-30’s in past the Great War, and as their frayed relationship begins to unravel when a beautiful young woman arrives in their small town. The novel slips back and forth in time, with a parallel story taking place in the 1950’s involving Ian Christopherson, a teenager who takes on job on Arthur’s farm. Ian has no interest in farming, but he does have an interest in Arthur’s beautiful wife, Laura, who fills the gap he feels when his mother abruptly leaves the family and moves to Toronto with another man.
Tragedy abounds in this novel, for Jake’s wilfulness and selfishness wreak havoc in ways both large and small. Then too, there is the Great War, which claims the lives of nearly all the town’s boys. But somehow, the tragic occurrences are not overwhelming. Lawson presents them in such a way that we accept them as part of life, knowing that bad things happen to good people. Her characters react with wisdom and dignity, and in the end the reader is comforted to know that decency pays off.
I finished the novel yesterday, and immediately headed downstair to my bookshelf to pluck out Lawson’s first novel, Crow Lake, which I had read in 2002 and loved. I started re-reading right away, simply because I needed more of her wonderful story telling and thoughtful outlook on life. This novel is placed in the same setting as The Other Side of the Bridge, and again takes a deep look at a family in crisis and the relationship between two brothers who are faced with enormous responsibility at an early age.
A reviewer from the Washington Post perfectly describes my reaction to both of these novels.
“Lawson communicates not only the lovely awe and beauty of the landscape but the way its inhabitants function within it. These are the kinds of books that keep you reading well past midnight; you grieve when it’s over. Then you start pressing it on friends.”
The Other Side of the Bridge was long listed for the Booker Prize, and deservedly so. Lawson has a marvelous way of presenting characters that stay with you, evoking a realistic sense of atmopshere, and providing a compelling story.
~To hear the author discuss The Other Side of the Bridge, go here
(*Bookmarks is a new feature here at the Byline, where I can tell you about what’s currently on my bedside reading table.)