Mary Lawson (2006) – The Other Side of the Bridge

Having recently read Mary Lawson’s first novel, Crow Lake, comparisons are unavoidable.  Both similarity and difference are apparent from page one of The Other Side of the Bridge. Both novels are set in the same community in northern Ontario.  Both begin with a prologue looking back to a past event, but the event described in The Other Side of the Bridge sets a dark tone not present in Crow Lake.  Both use the device of narration in the third person from the standpoint of a particular individual.  Crow Lake has a single narrator, The Other Side of the Bridge has two narrators, Arthur and Ian, roughly a generation apart, who alternate chapters—Ian gets the odd numbered chapters, Arthur gets the even numbered chapters.  This kind of structure telegraphs its ending, which always has the stories of the two narrators becoming intertwined.  The reader’s challenge is to see if it’s possible to figure out (from hints the author drops along the way) how the intertwining will play out.    


Crow Lake focuses on a single event and its effects on the narrator over time.  It’s more difficult to say what The Other Side of the Bridge focuses on.  I’d say it centers on Arthur’s younger brother Jake, but it doesn’t always focus there.  Ian and Arthur have other concerns.  Ian, the son of the town doctor, is an adolescent trying to find himself.  Arthur is trying to run the family farm he inherited when his father was killed in a tractor accident.


Jake is a bright, personable, manipulative sociopath who is the apple of his mother’s eye.  For no reason that is ever given or even hinted at, he takes pleasure in making the rather plodding Arthur’s life miserable.  Arthur initially tries to get his mother to see what kind of person Jake really is, and he discovers early on that she will brook no criticism of her darling Jake.  Arthur is thus effectively coerced into supporting his mother’s delusion.  When Jake accidentally or intentionally (we don’t really know which) causes Arthur a rather severe injury, Arthur lies about its circumstances and fabricates evidence that supports his report that the injury was accidentally self-inflicted.  When Jake is angry with a schoolmate, he cons Arthur into threatening him, getting Arthur into trouble.


Few others ever seem to be aware of Jake’s unremitting dark side.  Ian glimpses it momentarily in the events leading up to the novel’s climax, but his attention is focused elsewhere and he does not know what he has seen.  In a community where everyone knows everyone else his or her entire life, this seems a bit odd, but I guess I believe there really are people like that.


Jake is stupid about Arthur.  He assumes Arthur can always be manipulated.  Jake is correct most of the time, but on the occasions when Jake pushes Arthur too far, it costs Jake dearly.  But Jake is pathologically incapable of real feeling.  The consequences of Jake’s actions have far more destructive emotional effects on those around him than they do on Jake himself.



Sociopaths are thrill-seekers—daredevils.  When Jake falls from the bridge, the disaster is of his own making.  He has so thoroughly destroyed his own credibility with Arthur that Arthur quite reasonably dismisses his attempts to communicate the precariousness of his position.  Interestingly, although Arthur becomes obsessed with the thought that he is responsible for Jake’s fall, Jake never implicates him.  Perhaps Jake fears that the revelation of the magnitude of the risk he blithely took would damage his status with his mother as the child who can do no wrong.  This does not seem to occur to Arthur, who fixates on the fact that when Jake “his voice a shriek” cried out, “ ‘I’m going to fall,’ ” Arthur just said, “ ‘Good’ ….  A word that would haunt him for the rest of his life.” (pp. 74-5).  The thoughtful reader will have had the same thought, but without the regret.


Jake’s father, although he does not know the exact facts of the fall, understands that Jake brought it on himself. 


[His father] was so mad spittle was flying from his mouth.  “Fourteen damned years old, never taken responsibility for a single damned thing he’s ever done.”  (p. 104)


When Jake and Arthur’s father is killed in a tractor accident we learn about on page 7, but don’t actually see until page 159, Jake tells Arthur, “I hate him for dying before he learned I wasn’t worthless.”  (p.160)  Typical Jake.  In any case, we never learn anything that suggests that Jake isn’t worthless.  I guess that just means Jake would have said the same thing whenever his father died.  Jake cares what his father thinks of him—or so he says—but if he ever had even an inkling of what it would take to gain his father’s respect, he never acts on it.


The bridge incident reminds me of the central event in John Knowles’ (1966) A Separate Peace, in which the main character intentionally shakes the branch on which a schoolmate is standing, causing the schoolmate to fall to his death.  But injury is not death, and Arthur did not deliberately try to make Jake lose his grip. 


While Arthur is dull, Ian is bland.  Ian doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about anything or anyone except Arthur’s wife Laura.  He develops an adolescent crush on her—with strong erotic overtones—but it never goes anywhere, although it does precipitate the climactic confrontation between Arthur and Jake.  That’s relatively little to show for being the center of every odd-numbered chapter in the book.  Most of the time, Ian just isn’t very interesting.  Dull, plodding Arthur actually seems more alive.  The traumatic event in Ian’s life is that when he is seventeen his mother leaves his father to go off with the man who teaches geography at the local high school.  Ian takes this as an unforgivable betrayal of both his father and himself.    


Ian’s attraction to Laura reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem that begins


Helen, thy beauty is to me

            Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

            The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.


Helen was the mother of one of Poe’s classmates.  When he first met her, he was fourteen and she was twenty-seven.  Although the poem was published when Poe was twenty-two, it bespeaks the same kind of adolescent, mother / lover confusion that permeates Ian’s feelings towards Laura.


A nice touch in the psychological dynamic of the novel: Ian’s mother leaves some time after Ian has been smitten by Laura.  Full points to the author here.  Things would have been much less interesting if the two events had occurred in reverse order.  After Ian’s mother leaves, Ian is devastated.  He reacts by refusing to have anything more to do with her.  He discards her letters unopened—all one hundred ninety-two of them over the next three years.  He never forgives her.  And all the weight of his devastation falls onto his image of Laura.  His inchoate longings and unresolved feelings towards his mother become entangled with his erotic attraction to Laura.  It does not occur to him that his idea of Laura and the actual Laura are not one and the same.


Ian projects onto Laura his ideal of motherhood—she becomes a symbol of the mother he doesn’t have—but he has created a negative ideal of motherhood.  Everything about his mother was wrong.  The ideal mother is one who does not, would not, could not, do anything his actual mother did.  As Lawson tells us:


Once when he was a small child a Sunday school teacher had taught a lesson on being good….  All you had to do was ask yourself what Jesus would have done…..  [Ian] saw that for the past three years he had been working on a variation of that idea: in any tricky personal situation he had asked himself what his mother would have done, and then he had done the opposite.  It seemed to him that she was the prefect anti-role model.  (pp. 172-3)   


May we all have the perspicacity to look back on our adolescent decisions like these with sufficient objectivity to recognize when we were being just plain stupid.



Part of the pleasure of reading is to encounter felicitously phrased evocations of everyday situations that make us see them in a new light.  Here are some that appealed to me.


Silence is pretty much, well, silent, but Lawson makes it communicative as well.  In the course of a single, short paragraph Ian reflects that Arthur’s silence was “companionable”, his son Carter’s silence was “morose”, Ian’s friend Pete’s silence was “thoughtful”, and Carter’s silence (reconsidered) was “resentful”.  (pp.94-5)


Anthropomorphism can be overdone, but Lawson wields a deft brush.  Ian and Pete climb to the top of a cliff overlooking the lake.


Below them a couple of crows were bouncing about on a boulder, yelling at each other.  Then a third crow joined them and added his opinion, then a fourth.  They stood around bickering for a moment and then, abruptly, they seemed to reach agreement and they all flew off.  (pp.185-6)


Ian knows that Arthur’s son Marsh would like a rabbit for a pet.  He mentions it to Pete, and the next time he and Pete go fishing, Pete hands him a box with a baby rabbit in it.  Ian chides Pete because the box is too small.


“He doesn’t even have room to turn around,” Ian said.  “I thought you guys were supposed to have this special thing with animals.  A respectful relationship.  Like, asking their forgiveness before shooting them, that sort of thing.”


Pete gave him a look.  He reached out and took the box….  He put his head down to the box and said, “Hey, wabbit, forgive me, man.  I’m sorry I had to eat your mom and stuff you in a shoe box.”


He handed the box back to Ian.  “There you go.  He feels better about everything, now.”


Lawson’s message, expertly delivered, is that sometimes it is important not to take yourself or cultural stereotypes too seriously.  I find this particularly amusing in light of the scene in the movie Avatar (2009) in which the Na’vi heroine apologizes to the vicious creature she has just killed to save the hero.  Then she turns on the hero and reams him out for having made it necessary to kill the beast.  Later, the hero brings down a deer-like animal with his bow and arrow.  He apologizes to the carcass, explaining that it was needed for food.


Pete is not a major character, but he is finely drawn.  He is an Indian who lives on the reserve (reservation, we say in the U.S.) near Struan, the town in and around which the action of the novel takes place.  Pete and Ian are schoolmates of above average intelligence.  Pete is a good friend and a perceptive observer.  Ian is conflicted about his future after high school.  (p.275)  Pete decides to stay in the area because “I know what’s important to me.  And I know I don’t have to go anywhere else to find it.”


[Ian] said bitterly, “People are going to think you’re scared….  They’ll think you’re scared you can’t make it out there.”


Pete … looked at him.  He said mildly, “You care too much what people think, man….  At least I’m not doing something I don’t want to do just to prove a point.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ian said, hot with anger now.


“You know what it means.” ….


“No, I don’t.”


“You’re dumber than I thought, then,” Pete said, still mild as milk.  “Go work it out.”


The icing on this cake comes in the next scene.  Ian dreams of his mother.  She complains, as she did before she left, that there is nothing in Struan.


“That’s what I can’t stand about this place.  I can’t stand the nothingness.”


He said, “I’m here, Mum.  It isn’t nothingness if I’m here, is it?”


She smiled at him and for a moment he almost thought she was going to say no, you’re right, of course you’re right.  But instead she said., “Go work it out.”


Lawson has managed to tie together Ian’s plaintive question (p. 55) to his mother before she left—“If I won’t go with you, will you go anyway?”—with his procrastinating ambivalence towards college planning.


In the epilogue, narrated from Ian’s point of view, Lawson tells us that Ian had a nervous breakdown at the end his second year of medical school and went back to Struan for about a year before finishing up.  Ian didn’t seem to be to be the nervous breakdown type, but with the author in tell rather than show mode, we either take her word for it or not.  Either way, it’s not fully satisfying. 


It’s nice that Ian finally manages to see Laura as a person instead of an unfaithful (fantasy) lover and a failed mother-surrogate.  By that time, I was pretty much beyond caring.


It’s Arthur, rather, who comes out better at the end.  His final words to Ian are gentle and generous.


The smile once more.  “And Ian … thanks for comin’.  Not just now.  All those times, back then.”  (p. 293)


Notwithstanding accurate psychological observations and the occasional rhetorical delight, I can’t see recommending The Other Side of the Bridge.  I’m glad I read Lawson’s Crow Lake and I’ll keep an eye out to see if her next novel (if there is one) is better.


One Response to “Mary Lawson (2006) – The Other Side of the Bridge”

  1. LouisCutrona says:

    From a friend who also read the book and my comments:
    “My question is why did Lawson kill off Carter?”

    That got me thinking. I guess she liked the way it simultaneously devastated four characters in different ways at the same time

    Jake – He had expected his taunting of Arthur to end up with another triumph, not to end up with him killing his biological son.

    Arthur – He had been angry with Jake for so long and this was an excuse to give Jake the thrashing he so richly deserved. He didn’t expect Jake in his panic to escape to accidentally kill Carter, whom Arthur had come to love.

    Laura – She hadn’t expected to succumb again even in a moment of ambivalence to Jake’s charm, and she certainly hadn’t expected Ian to run and tell Arthur, thus putting into motion the events that killed her son and threatened her relationship with Arthur, whom she had come to love.

    Ian – He felt betrayed and angry when Laura, his ideal woman, turned out not to be ideal after all. I think all he thought about was getting Arthur to punish Laura (which would have been symbolically punishing the mother who had abandoned him). He didn’t expect his bottled up anger towards his mother to have repercussions that ended up killing Carter.

    Actually, there’s a fifth character who is affected, and that’s Carter. Jake, his Cadillac, and the attention Jake paid to him, courting him, if you will, had captivated him. He hears a commotion. He runs towards it, not understanding what is happening. Blam! End of story.

    I don’t like it because it feels too contrived. We’re left wondering why Laura and Arthur consented to Jake’s staying at all. We can make up stories–after all, Jake is Carter’s father and both Laura and Arthur are aware of that, so maybe they thought he (or Carter) had some right to know his real father. Question: Jake is Carter’s biological father, but isn’t Arthur Carter’s real father? Laura and Arthur each know Jake too well to really believe Jake’s presence could bring anything but trouble. Hope springs eternal. As I say, it feels too contrived. I feel emotionally manipulated and I don’t like it.

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