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The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

The first sign of trouble

Mary Lawson's second novel opens with a prologue that is a classic example of subtle and suspenseful storytelling. Two boys are playing on a farm in the far north of Canada. Solid 13-year-old Arthur and sprightly, handsome little Jake, are playing a game with knives. The idea is to throw your knife into the earth, as close as possible to your opponent's naked foot. When the game goes wrong and blood spills, the reader knows instantly that this is indicative of what is to come. Arthur and Jake could not be more different as siblings and those differences will only magnify as they grow older and lead - relentlessly - to tragedy.

In this fine novel, the finest moments come as Lawson describes the relationship between the two brothers. Plodding Arthur is hopeless at school and loves nothing better than cleaning his father's gun or helping to guide the plough horses. Jake is a spoiled ne're-do-well, indulged by their mother after several miscarriages and despised by their father for his manipulative laziness. In less able hands Jake could be a cardboard villain but, as Lawson's book progresses, we begin to understand his desperation at his inability to please their unforthcoming father, and his resentment of the good-natured Arthur. These mutual antagonisms come to a head in a shocking accident halfway through the book, entirely Jake's fault but resulting in a lifetime of guilt for his older brother.

Interwoven with their story is that of Ian, a local doctor's son, who gets to know the grown-up brothers when he goes to work on the farm. By then, Arthur is married, and Ian's motives are more than agricultural. Bereft of a mother himself, he has a teenage crush on Arthur's beautiful wife Laura, but his unconsummated obsession is to unlock the secrets in the brothers' pasts. Lawson handles the interweaving plot strands with consummate skill. Ian's story doesn't have the drama of Arthur and Jake's but, in compensation, there is a tender and humorous portrayal of his life with his overworked, divorced father. Their small rural community emerges vividly from these vignettes.

In a book that is mostly flawless, there is the occasional false note. When the young Ian first observes Arthur out in the fields with his plough and horses, he thinks of "a picture postcard of time gone by" which feels more like something the modern author thinks than the character Ian. But it's a minor rumple in the otherwise pristine texture of her prose. Lawson is a subtle stylist with an interesting story to tell. Her Booker longlisting should be a source of joy for everyone tired of self-indulgent "look at me" writing. The Other Side of the Bridge is a beautiful read, on every level.