About the Book:
In 1970s Melbourne, 22-year-old Italian migrant Antonello is newly married and working as a rigger on the West Gate Bridge, a gleaming monument to a modern city. When the bridge collapses one October morning, killing 35 of his workmates, his world crashes down on him.
In 2009, Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, are on the verge of finishing high school and flush with the possibilities for their future. But one terrible mistake sets Jo’s life on a radically different course.
Drawing on true events of Australia’s worst industrial accident—a tragedy that still scars the city—The Bridge is a profoundly moving novel that examines class, guilt, and moral culpability. Yet it shows that even the most harrowing of situations can give way to forgiveness and redemption. Ultimately, it is a testament to survival and the resilience of the human spirit.
‘How did people keep living when grief was weighed down by guilt?’
The Bridge is a stunning novel. Grave, yes, but exquisitely written, an intricate study on trauma and grief tightly meshed with guilt. I’m normally quite a fast reader, but I slowed myself right down with this one, taking the time to linger over the way it was making me feel. I’ve had this novel sitting on my review pile for a couple of months now but I think I’ve ended up reading it at the right time. My daughter is only a couple of weeks away from taking her provisional license test and given Jo’s storyline, this novel has really left its imprint upon me.
I hate drink drivers. Even though I’m on my open license and have been for more than twenty years, I still maintain an alcohol level of zero if I’m going to be driving. Maybe some people will think this is overboard, but I have my own reasons as to why I live by this code. As far as characters go, Jo was about as stupid as they come, yet incredibly authentic, because how many young people think they’re invincible? I work with teenagers, older ones at a senior high school, they never think something bad is going to happen to them. I’ve supervised during countless presentations on alcohol and drug education, so I know the kids are all getting these messages. But Jo fairly typifies teens, in my view. She drank so much alcohol, and then loaded her car up with two more passengers than what was legal for her license, sped, did not pay attention, and then crashed. Such a stupid, stupid girl. But she’s not the first, and while she may be a fictional character, she’s as real as they come. This happens all too often. But it wasn’t Jo I was the angriest at.
‘She should’ve stopped Jo driving. She should’ve tried. She was a coward, avoiding conflict, instead of being a proper mother; a proper mother would’ve stopped them.’
It was Mandy, her mother. I’ve come across a few Mandy’s in recent years and they make parenting really damned hard for the rest of us who are trying maintain a household with rules and safe behavior. It’s the Mandy’s of the world, who just don’t want to put in the effort to argue with their kids, who give in and give up, that see the rest of us going head to head with our irate teenagers because we are ‘the strictest parents in the world’. To know the law, to witness your daughter drinking alcohol prior to driving, knowing she’s going to pick up more passengers than she’s allowed, and all you do is make an egg sandwich for her to soak up the alcohol and then wave goodbye? She was even more stupid than her daughter and I really didn’t have much sympathy for either of them. I completely understood why the accident tainted her love for Jo, but I also didn’t think Mandy had the right to feel that way given her own culpability. Jo might have been nineteen, technically an adult, but as far as I’m concerned, if your child still lives at home, you, as their parent, have a responsibility to parent them if they appear to be doing something unsafe or illegal. There’s all sorts of interesting ideas that you can pick at here from this storyline, particularly at what point you stop parenting and step back and let the consequences occur, but given that Jo was still at high school, still dependent on Mandy, I really think Mandy did the wrong thing in a big way and was partially culpable for the tragedy that occurred.
For me, a good book is one that makes you feel with intensity, be it happy, sad or something in between. It’s one that gets your thoughts churning and your emotions rising. This is most definitely one of those novels for me. While I was passing judgement from my high horse on Mandy and Jo, I could still directly relate to their experiences, because parenting styles and socioeconomic circumstances aside, I am in that same stage of life as them. For all of the hard yards I’ve done with my daughter, for all I keep reminding her of the law, personal safety, making smart choices, she could, at any point in time, make a bad judgement, kill someone, kill herself, injure an innocent bystander. The ripple effect of this is profound, and within this novel, Enza meticulously deconstructs this ripple effect. Like I said above, this is a grave novel, the subject matter is weighty, the emotions of grief and guilt are heavy to bear witness to, but it’s such an important novel. It would be a brilliant addition to the senior school English syllabus. I hope one day to see it there.
‘As if bad things could be thwarted by his refusal to pay them attention. As if he didn’t know better. As if he didn’t know that tragedy could and would strike whether you were around to pick up the phone or not, that it would catch up with you and stop you in your tracks no matter how hard or fast you ran, no matter whether you’d had your share of tragedy or not.’
There are in essence two stories within this novel, and while Enza weaves them tightly together with her themes of trauma, grief and guilt, along with the West Gate Bridge providing a focal setting point, Antonio’s story is different to Jo’s. Antonio is Ashleigh’s grandfather, and when he was twenty two, he was working on the West Gate Bridge when it collapsed. His guilt is still sharp even forty years on, a survivor guilt because he’d swapped a shift and the person replacing him died that day. As far as he’s concerned, it should have been him. His guilt manifests itself within him and he fails to grieve properly, resulting in him carrying this around within him, never letting go. When ‘the bridge’ takes the life of his granddaughter, all of Antonio’s barely suppressed grief comes to the surface. It was really well done, how Enza mirrored Antonio’s grief and guilt with Jo’s. Two different accidents, but the emotions wrought within were the same for each of them.
In terms of writing about the tragedy of the bridge collapse, Enza’s account was so authentically rendered. You could really feel the terror, the chaos, the choked atmosphere that comes with such a large scale tragedy. I am actually familiar with the collapse of the West Gate Bridge, even though it happened before I was born. My father was working on the bridge, he was nineteen at the time of the collapse. He was a labourer, so down on the ground. After I finished reading The Bridge, I asked him about that day, and nearly 50 years on, his memories were so clear and listening to him as he recalled specifics gave me goosebumps.
‘We never got offered counselling, there was nothing like that. We just came back to work a couple of months after and finished the bridge…’ (C.F. 2019)
He’s always been a staunch unionist though, and I wonder now how much this accident influenced that within him. I can only imagine the horror of that day, the lasting trauma. My dad told me it took him a very long time before he could cross the bridge after it was finished. He still hasn’t ever visited the memorial. You can see why this novel has left its mark on me, with both storylines being so close to home.
‘Did the dead exist anywhere? Were they watching?
…He felt the weight of their unlived lives, of all they might have been; he felt his own inadequacy.’
The Bridge has been shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize, and in my opinion, it’s worthy of the winning place. It has all the markers of an Australian classic. There’s even more themes within this novel that I haven’t even touched on, but we’d be here all day if I kept going on and on. Best you just read The Bridge for yourself. Highly recommended reading for all tastes and interests.
Thanks is extended to Scribe for providing me with a copy of The Bridge for review.
About the Author:
Enza Gandolfo is a Melbourne writer and an honorary professor in creative writing at Victoria University. She is interested in the power of stories to create understanding and empathy, with a particular focus on feminist and political fiction. The co-editor of the journal TEXT and a founding member of the Victoria University Feminist Research Network, her first novel, Swimming (2009), was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award.
Published by Scribe
Released on 14th May 2018
Congratulations to Enza on being shortlisted for #2019StellaPrize. Here’s what the judge’s had to say about The Bridge:
The Bridge is both the story of a tragedy in contemporary Melbourne and the chronicle of a disaster in our recent past, when part of the West Gate Bridge collapsed during construction, killing thirty-five people in what remains Australia’s worst industrial accident.
As well as exploring the way a life can be altered by one dramatic event, The Bridge is a sharp and moving portrayal of the strength and resilience that lives in people, and a fascinating look at the effects of gentrification.
The writing in this evocative, multi-generational novel is exquisite; the way in which Gandolfo takes us into moments of catastrophe, drawing characters so that they come to life, without over-dramatising, shows a novelist of the highest calibre.
This is a story with many layers that is deeply intellectual and unashamedly working-class, showing Footscray and Melbourne’s west in ways we’ve not seen before. Emotionally intelligent and yet unsentimental, The Bridge deals with complex ethical questions with great humanity and subtlety.