Review by Kath R:
I chose this novel from the pile because it had a photograph of Pamela Frankau on the back looking very intently at the camera smoking a cigarette and looking very much the professional writer. I immediately regretted my choice when I found out from the flyleaf that it would be about religion and I thought it might be too earnest and too evangelical for me.
I could not have been more wrong – yes, it is about redemption and search for salvation but it is also about being a writer, about choices and about relationships between men and women, father and daughter, mother and son.
This is the story of David Neilson. At the start of the novel, he is on a bridge being led by a stranger and the reader quickly realises that he is on the brink of death and the afterlife. The novel looks back at some significant events of his life which have lead him to this point. There is an incident when he is a child, one in his twenties, a later one when he is married with a daughter, culminating in a series of events in which he wants the comfort which God would give him. The story moves in time from the present (1957) in which he is called Neilson to the events referred to above in which he is referred to as David.
The structure of the novel feels modern, although having been written in 1957 it is slightly outside the scope of the collection. When I was reading it I compared the structure to that of Atonement in which someone looks back at her life and actions and spends her life atoning for a single act. In this novel the atonement is being sought for an event which happens in David’s life about halfway though the book.
The descriptions of the scenery of the beach and swimming in the sea during childhood holidays are superb, always linked to his emotions. In one paragraph he refers to getting into difficulties in the water:
‘As he yelled the silver line curled and wall (of sea) broke on top of him. Now he would die, Down, down, down, bursting in the dark. Blind, strangling below tons of water that roared and roared’ (p22)
The casino in France feels very realistic (p112) as does the tension around David’s recklessness when gambling. The incident following the visit to the casino and which ends the trip to France is shocking to the reader. Pamela Frankau only alludes to the event in one short sentence and the reader is then taken forward 5 years in the next chapter to discover the full horrific effects of the incident. This was a superb device which made me gasp and go back and re-read the passage. Pamela Frankau made me care about David.
The women in the story are all strong, in paid professional work and equals to their husbands. There are few working-class women in the novel, but one of them is key to David’s religious conversion and she is also a whole character. One character particularly fascinated me ; I wanted to hear far more about aunt Rachel, who David says as an aside, ‘I later found out was my mother’ and never refers to the matter again.
There were a couple of negatives for me as a 21st century reader. Linda, David’s wife, refers to her past sexual relationship with a woman as ‘arrested development. Now I look at it, I can see my bi-sexuality was just that: Failure to grow up’ (p272). Pamela Frankau herself had a 10 year relationship with a woman. Also I disagreed with David’s (and Frankau’s) attitude to atheism: ‘You never claimed to be an atheist. No intelligent person ever does’ (p272).
In the back flyleaf there is a quote from John Davenport, from the Observer about Pamela Frankau’s A Wreath for the Enemy:
‘This is a real novel, admirably constructed and succinct, the characters beautifully observed, credible but not conventional’.
This sentence could apply to The Bridge. I loved the novel and am so excited to discover a new author.