Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2018

The Bridge, by Enza Gandolfo #BookReview

Resilience.  Some people can recover enough from the most harrowing situations to live a good life, while other people suffer ongoing torment and their lives are destroyed.

Enza Gandolfo’s  superb second novel ventures into this territory with a story that begins with the collapse of the West Gate Bridge in 1970 and the deaths of 35 workers in Australia’s worst industrial accident.  I was there that day: my driving instructor used to take me down to Fisherman’s Bend to practise parking in the ferry’s carpark.  We were turned back by police, but we could see what had happened.  One of the spans that had been there had collapsed, hurling the workers on the span 50 metres to the ground, and crushing under 2000 tonnes of concrete others who were having lunch in the workers’ huts on the ground beneath the span.

Gandolfo’s depiction of this tragedy is horrifically vivid.  Antonello, an Italian migrant who had swapped his morning shift that day, watches aghast from below:

There was an agonising groan as the span the rigging team had spent the last five days hoisting up moved again.  It was caving in the centre now, and the men were trapped midair.  They stumbled, slid and slipped.  They were bashed by the flying debris; their arms reached for the sides of the girder, for something, but there was nothing.  Gas bottles, drums, pieces of timber, chains and bolts spun and rolled and fell over the edges, turning into airborne missiles.

Another jolt; the span was almost vertical now.  A stiff-legged derrick loosed from its mooring catapulted towards the river, its long metal arms flaying violently, a giant possessed.  And now the men: the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air and into the river below.  They were screaming, but their cries were muffled by the bridge’s own deathly groans. (p.15)

The impact and the explosion could be heard 20 kilometres away.  Antonello’s parents live within walking distance of the site.

In Emilia’s kitchen, the floor vibrated; a ceramic Sicilian horse and cart that had made the long journey with them on the ship slid off the edge of the dresser and hit the floor, shattering.  In the cupboard, glasses clinked and rattled as they fell against one another. Emilia reached for the crucifix on the wall above the door and steadied it, made the sign of the cross, and said a quick prayer: ‘Ti prego Sant-Antonio mantenere la mia famiglia sicura.’  She turned off the gas and ran out the door. (p.17) [Please, Saint Anthony, keep my family safe.]

Antonello’s wife Paolina abandons her classroom and joins a thick swarm of people heading for the West Gate.

As soon as they turned onto Hyde Street, the crowd gasped. A huge span had fallen and crashed, a concrete column had collapsed.  The air was dust and smoke and grit. And thick with the stench of diesel and petroleum. She could see flames and flying sparks; the riverbank was a mountain of mangled steel and concrete; there were crushed buildings and overturned cranes. Mud from the river flats was spattered on the road, on the cars parked along the street, and on the weatherboards of the small row of houses across the road; the thick black sludge hung from awnings, windowsills, and fence posts like sleeping bats from trees. (p.19)

For Antonello, a rigger who should have been at work that day, survivor guilt consumes his life.  But it is survivor guilt of another kind that tests the moral boundaries of the reader…

Westgate Bridge, seen from the walkway near the Memorial Park (Wikipedia Commons*)

Four decades later Jo and her best friend Ashleigh live in the shadow of the finished bridge.  With gentrification the suburb is casting off its working class character but their friendship has withstood the social chasm of their different backgrounds: Ashleigh is more privileged not just because her parents are wealthy but also because she is pretty and clever, but until a boyfriend becomes important to Ashleigh Jo has never doubted that she is considered a part of Ashleigh’s family, and Ashleigh is like another daughter to Jo’s mother Mandy.  The girls are inseparable.

The Royal Commission held after the bridge collapse was in no doubt about who was to blame, and likewise there is absolutely no doubt about who causes the road crash that follows heavy drinking at a party.   On P-plates too, when a BAC of 0.00 is mandatory. ‘I wasn’t drunk’, she says, after a Cruiser and a shared bottle of champagne before the party and then at the party another Cruiser or two. A glass of champagne.  Another champagne with cake, maybe two).

‘We all drank. I drove because I’m the only one with a licence and a car.  I wasn’t drunk.  I don’t drink that much.  It’s not like I was… I don’t get that drunk.  I knew what was going on.’ They didn’t believe her.  She didn’t believe herself.  It was true that she didn’t drink much, not compared to some.  If only they knew how much some people drank. (p.143)

Not drunk?? She was over 0.07!!!!

Gandolfo has structured this novel so that any of us reading it will sheet home the blame the way the other characters do.  (I mean, I know how many hours of mandatory drug education there are in schools.  Education about drink driving starts in primary school. There’s no way a young driver can not know the effects of alcohol and the consequences of drink driving).  What is so skilful about this book that’s still haunting me days after finishing it is the way the story depicts both the catalyst for this stupidity and the remorse, self-loathing and grief for destroyed lives that follows it.  My firm beliefs about moral culpability and my resistance to the idea that this was an ‘accident’ shifted.

This story is utterly heartbreaking, not least because it’s a story that is repeated across Australia over and over again.  There is hatred and a desire to obliterate the person who caused the pain, and no one can blame the bereaved for feeling like this. Yet the novel asks us: what do we want to happen next? How much do we want the guilty to suffer?  Could anything be enough?  And how do we reconcile our hope that the bereaved family has enough resilience to survive the future, with a hope that the young driver has enough resilience too? 

I’m still thinking about it…

*The image of the bridge is by Kham Tran – http://www.khamtran.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5210398

Author: Enza Gandolfo
Title: The Bridge
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2018
ISBN: 9781925713015
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: The Bridge

 


Responses

  1. I heard an hour long interview with someone who was there broadcast by the ABC radio. It was an amazing day of just awfulness. The book sounds interesting. A good review.

    • It’s excellent:) I finished this book two weeks ago but couldn’t publish my review till the embargo was lifted, and I have been dying to talk about the book!

  2. The seventies was an interesting decade disaster-wise, the Westgate Bridge, the Granville Train Disaster and was the Derwent River Bridge collision also in that era? For some reason, although I was a child/teen these disasters have stayed with me and I don’t like being on or under traffic bridges. Thanks for the review, but I might give this one a miss!

    • Oh, Jenny, I hope you change your mind about that, this is such a good book I am sure it will be on shortlists everywhere…

  3. […] Enza Gandolfo (author of Swimming and a new novel called The Bridge which I have just reviewed); […]

  4. Sounds like a great book Lisa – one I’d enjoy. I rather enjoy books that take an event I know and explore its aftermath as you know that the impacts can be immense and not always obvious.

    BTW I seem to recollect that in the 70s when I was first driving the legal limit was 0.08. It is apparently still that in some countries like Canada and some states of the USA – I checked Wikipedia out of interest.

  5. I think that you and your book group would love the thorny issues it raises:)
    You might be right about the BCA in the 70s, but by the time this young driver in the novel was on the road in the C21st, the tolerance for drink driving was over. Here in Victoria probationary drivers have to have a 0.00 BCA, and in their first year (red plates) they’re not allowed to carry more than one peer-aged passenger.

    (BTW I’m deliberately not naming her or saying what actually happened to avoid spoilers).

    • Sorry, I probably wasn’t clear. We in the ACT, and most of Australia I think has a similar regime to Victoria BCA. My point simply was that 0.07 is not necessarily “drunk” given that many jurisdictions allow you to drive with that.

      I will add it to my reading group’s suggested schedule – we’ll be deciding the second half of the year’s program at our May meeting. I suspect though that there are so many wishes already that it won’t get up.

      • I think that road laws are now uniform around Australia, though I seem to recall that the NT wanted to have higher speed limits, I don’t know if that was agreed to or not.
        Perhaps there isn’t that much difference between 0.07 and 0.05, but the research certainly shows that almost any amount of alcohol affects judgement and reflexes which is why they don’t let inexperienced drivers have any alcohol at all.
        The other thing that’s relevant is that women process alcohol differently to men: I know of a case where a woman was over 0.05 on one glass of champagne after work and lost her licence.

        • Yes, you’re right re impairment, and women. It was just an observation, really!

  6. Sounds a powerful book. Here in the UK there’s still a legal limit of alcohol allowed for drivers – so many mg, can’t remember the number; obviously a different system from yours. There’s a strong move towards zero though, as in Scandinavian countries. Btw, English teacher moment: you spell ‘practise’ as a verb the English way; I think I’m right in saying Americans use ‘c’ for the noun and verb. Are there any American practices (ha) that you use in Australian English writing? Sorry to lower the tone of a powerful review…

    • Well spotted! Yes, we spell the verb ‘practise’ and the noun ‘practice’ differently, we are ‘civilised’ not civilized’ and there are some other words where Americans drop the ‘u’ in ‘mould’, ‘colour’ &c. We write ‘mum’ not ‘mom’ and ‘moustache’ not ‘mustache’. When I was at school we spelt prison as gaol, but I suspect now younger Australians spell it as jail. An interesting one is ‘labour’… in the 1980s when there was some (misguided) flirtation with US spellings here, the Australian Labour Party dropped its ‘u’ and has kept it that way but I think I’m right in saying that the rest of us have kept the ‘us’.

      • I will butt in here. I agree with Lisa that we spell the English way – other examples are that we write “centre” not “center”, “tyre” not “tire”, “aluminium” not “aluminum”. And there are more.

        The æ is going in all those words like “encylopædia”, mediævel” etc, but maybe they are going in English English too!?

        The aspect where we ARE more actively changing towards more American usage though is in pronunciation, particularly in terms of emphasis/stressed syllables – and it drives me batty.

        BTW Lisa, the ALP has spelt it “or” not “our” since 1912, ie very early in its history, It was to do, apparently, with the American “labor” movement.

        • 1912! I didn’t know that!
          Another word we’ve taken on is ‘gotten’ which I dislike intensely. (I know all the arguments about its origins, I don’t care, it’s an ugly word and I will die in a ditch before ever it passes my lips.)
          Pronunciation: Did you know that Aussie taxi-drivers still pick me as a Pom, despite me having been here since the 1960s, while London cabbies pick me as an Aussie and The Spouse as a Pom though he’s 5th generation Australian!

          • I looked it up, because I felt that it had always been the “or” in my life time, but knew there was a story to it.

            Yes, I nearly mentioned the “gotten” too. I have mixed feelings about that one because I also hate “got” in the contexts where “gotten” might be used. I try to find ways to avoid both!

            I love that about the cabbies. When I first moved to NSW I’d often be picked as English because in Queensland we’d say “dance” and “branch” the English way, but I think I’ve gradually adopted the Australian way. I think I still say “data” the English way but am starting to feel schizophrenic!

            • Thanks for these additions to the conversation. British English is favouring the use of ‘e’ instead of Latin ‘ae’, as you suggest where you are. American influence has long been felt here, too, from she shift from ‘gaol’ to ‘jail’ to using intransitive verbs as transitive (the Guardian, for example, has taken to use ‘they protested the Bill in a demonstration’; ‘impact’ is another. As for ‘medal’ as a verb – that’s more or less idiomatic now, especially since the London Olympics in 2012…The list is endless. Oh, and we have ‘drive-thru’ fast food joints, sadly. Now I’ll stop as I sound like a grumpy old man.

              • I don’t mind language changing to suit the times, after all, we’ve cheerfully accepted rendezvous and naivete – but I like the words we adopt to sound good, and the examples you’ve given are pompous and clumsy. That’s what I object to…

              • Yes, that intransitive verb thing happens here too. And “metalling”. Etc. Seems to me that usage and pronunciation is changing faster than spelling. Interesting.

            • My teachers drilled us out of using ‘got’. We were allowed to use ‘receive’ or ‘became’.

              • Yes, we were drilled too … but I remember the drill more than the solutions, so fierce they were!

                • Ooh yeah!

          • That use of ‘gotten’ is creeping into the usage of the younger generation. And my nieces, who spent the best part of twenty years growing up in Scotland, are in a similar position: when they speak to old Scots friends they’re teased for sounding Aussie, and vice versa with Australians…

            • Poor Professor Higgins, I think he would find it harder these days with so many of us hybrids around!

      • Thanks for the clarification. Maybe I had a dim notion of that use of ‘Labor’ – I have two nieces and their families who live in Perth, so get a slight flavour (-our!) of Australian usage

        • Ah, well that must mean that you’re bound to make a visit here one day!

  7. Snap! I was on South Wharf that day. I did a delivery to 32 South (I think) and watched the bridge while I waited to be unloaded. Just a few minutes later I stopped for a donut back towards the city, and the guy in the van said ‘the bridge has collapsed’. Incidentally, the engineer in charge, with head contractor John Holland, was a rello. He didn’t cop any blame as far as I remember.

    • An unforgettable day… and I expect your relation remembers it well too…


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