Reviewed by Gediminas Dainius
Maylis de Kerangal.
Birth of a Bridge, trans. Jessica Moore. Talonbooks, 2014.
French author Maylis de Kerangal’s recently translated novel, Birth of a Bridge, follows a plethora of characters from different socioeconomic backgrounds as they attempt to facilitate or impede the construction of a bridge in the fictional city of Coca, California. Although the novel does not follow any one person at length, the central character is the aging engineer overseeing the project, Georges Diderot. Gradually, his obsession with realizing grand projects gives way to more commonplace pleasures after he meets and becomes intimate with an impoverished married woman named Katherine Thoreau who works at the construction site.
From the outset, the symbolic value of the bridge looms large, functioning as a metaphor for spatial, social, and temporal connections and their ambiguous benefits. The bridge, for instance, physically connects Coca to the rest of the world, catalyzing the process of globalization that will see the past abandoned or generalized and commodified. The ambiguous nature of these links is best exemplified when Jacob, a man who has been studying the Natives living nearby whose way of life will be changed by the bridge, physically assaults Georges. Unfortunately, events like these can feel heavy-handed at times, as if de Kerangal does not trust her reader to discern their symbolic significance: “If you’d been there to see the combat—the bridge against the forest, the economy against nature, movement against immobility—you wouldn’t have known who to cheer for” (89). The author is at her best when the metaphoric bridges that proliferate in the novel are understated, occurring organically and without fanfare. For instance, during Georges and Katherine’s first casual meeting at a bar, “something still has to be crossed, and that is the table, which is also a river” (183). de Kerangal uses the bridge motif in interpersonal moments like these to make some of the questions surrounding new connections more tangible, if no less easily answerable.
PEN America Translation Award winner Jessica Moore does an admirable job in keeping a strong sense of de Kerangal’s style intact. The novel features ambitious prose that ebbs and flows in long, graceful sentences interspersed with shorter, punchier ones. Birth of a Bridge’s vocabulary is extensive, making free use of both colloquial and more esoteric terms and thus reflecting the diversity present in the narrative. There are, however, times in which de Kerangal’s verve feels misplaced. Although her long phrases generally flow with ease, keeping clear of Faulknerian density that can become trying on the reader after a while, every now and again she adds an especially rare or technical word that stands out and disrupts an otherwise smooth read. For instance, it seems unnecessarily specific that one woman “dries her lacrimal canals” (59) as opposed to her eyes or the corners of her eyes.
Birth of a Bridge is not particularly plot driven. Its story is episodic, detailing numerous characters, social groups, and landscapes, with particular interest in their connection to the construction of the bridge. For those who privilege plot, this may be somewhat tedious at first because the novel spends considerable time introducing a multitude of characters before they come together at the construction site. Some of these individuals grow into well-rounded characters. Others, however, receive enough backstory to spark interest only to remain little more than cardboard cut-outs for the remainder of the novel, disappearing quickly or appearing briefly and intermittently throughout. That said, a few develop into compelling and believable characters over the course of the narrative, and it is primarily their conflicts and romances that will keep lovers of plot coming back.
Those who are less reliant on plot will find the exploration of everything surrounding the bridge’s construction quite intriguing. de Kerangal refrains from taking a black or white stance concerning the issue of globalization, but instead uses the narrative to invite the reader to consider the complex environmental, social, and economical factors at play. Overall, Birth of a Bridge is a relevant novel that leaves the reader with few concrete answers, but artfully poses a number of questions worthy of attention.
Gediminas Dainius holds a BA in Honours English and Creative Writing from Concordia University, where he is currently completing his MA in English. His research interests include violent masculinity and the perseverance of the frontier myth in contemporary American fiction.
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