Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge was a difficult one to read for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s subject matter is heavy going. There are few moments of clarity and joy – and for good reason. They would be totally inappropriate in this story. Secondly, the local setting makes it feel strangely familiar, sitting disconcertingly between historical and modern literature.
This is the story of two tragedies that occur on the West Gate Bridge, one of Melbourne’s most controversial constructions. The tragic collapse of the West Gate Bridge during its construction in the 1970s killed 35 workers, many of whom were migrants. As a 22-year-old, Italian immigrant Antonello’s life is utterly changed that day, and over the next 40 years he is unable to block the voices of his dead co-workers that haunt him. He became a man closed off to close relationships. It was a tragedy avoidable if the engineers and bosses of the construction team had a greater focus on safety. Some say the bridge is still unsafe, and that another tragedy is inevitable.
There is much unexplored about this narrative as we jump ahead 40 years to the time when Antonello’s granddaughter Ashleigh is killed in a car accident on the same bridge.
Much of this novel actually focusses on Jo, who was driving the car that night. She was over the limit, and angry that her close friendship with Ashleigh seemed to be changing in ways that she could not control. Her lack of judgement and emotional shakiness have terrifying consequences. Jo and two other girls emerge physically unscathed, but Jo has to try to live with the knowledge that she killed her best friend, and in doing so, she has altered many lives irrevocably.
Ashleigh’s family – one she spent as much time with as her own– will never accept and forgive her for what happened. Her own mother struggles to finher daughter’s actions and the choices she made that contributed to it. And beyond all the paralysing grief and shame, Jo faces the very real possibility of a jail sentence.
Jo’s grief knows no boundaries. She isolates herself, considers suicide and runs away for a time, trying to escape the perceived stares and blame of her local community. It’s gut-wrenching subject matter and while it doesn’t make for pleasant reading, it is dealt with reasonably adeptly by Gandolfo. She doesn’t shy away from the real and unpleasant emotions of her characters. I can’t say I enjoyed this, but I can say I believed it.
The connection of the bridge isn’t as strong as the title might suggest, but it does connect the two events and the two sets of characters together neatly. In the end, it is Antonello who plays the crucial role in assisting those involved to let go of their grief by finally examining and trying to let go of his own. He uses his flaws to encourage others to forgive and channel their emotions positively. There can be no happy endings in a story like this – but there is a sense that many of the characters begin to find a way through the darkness.