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.
I was 6 years old on the morning of October 15, 1970 when a 367-ft (112 m) span of the West Gate Bridge collapsed into the muddy banks of the Yarra River below.
While my recollections of the disaster are sketchy, I distinctly remember the front page of The Sun News Pictorial on the following day. It was and remains Australia’s worst industrial accident. And ignorance of the details in no way diminishes my awareness of its profound and far-reaching impact.
In this haunting novel, Enza Gandolfo spins a poignant tale of loss, culpability and survivor guilt across three generations, set against the backdrop of the West Gate Bridge and its tragic history.
I recently heard Gandolfo speak about the importance of place to her and in her writing. This shines through on every page. The daughter of working-class migrant parents, Gandolfo grew up ‘… in Yarraville, less than ten minutes drive from the bridge.’ She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of Melbourne’s western suburbs. Brings to life the sense of community shared by its inhabitants. Writes with such familiarity and deep affection that place becomes a character all its own.
Through the central protagonists, Antonello and Jo, the novel examines the psychological and emotional impact of tragedy. Both in the immediate aftermath and the longer term. On survivors and by extension, their families, friends and the broader community.
We are privy to the tortured ruminations of each character. At times, these seem a bit excessive, but they are key to our appreciation of the complex emotions at play. And it’s their flawed authenticity, vulnerability and uncertainty that makes this novel so powerful and moving.
Gandolfo also skilfully contrasts the self-absorbed preoccupations of youth with the empathic reflections of age and experience. And in doing so, she offers a message of hope; that with time and perspective, ‘ … even the most harrowing of situations can give way to forgiveness and redemption.’
The Bridge is shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize. And it’s a great read.