9780702236433, UQP, 2008 (Australia)
This book opens in the past, with the sight of a body falling from a bridge.
In the present, Robert O’Hara makes small gestures – planting fig trees, comforting his distraught girlfriend after an attack on them both, easing his way into an old man’s life to learn the secrets of his own history. His personality and actions are explored in relation to his father, a mythical, rigid figure from Robbie’s childhood, who ‘built’ the Story Bridge in Brisbane. One of the most striking scenes in this book is when Robbie remembers the horror and disappointment of the Meccano set his father bought him, and night after night his father’s encouragement to build with it. A moving early realisation that his father doesn’t understand him and would never try to.
The centre of the book goes back to 1939, and the characters involved in the day-to-day building of the bridge. As readers we still remain quite distant from O’Hara Senoir, as we develop empathy for other characters who come up against big things he may be a part of.
While this book does have a great deal of plot and drive, the main events, particularly in the present, are explorations of emotional failings. Overall the book is relatively quiet and unassuming. It is evocatively descriptive, but easily so. ‘Well-constructed’ comes to mind – although from time to time the steel/rigid metaphor vs the earth/patience one seems a little blatant – but then is dimensionalised – when a leaf is overturned, for instance. I won’t ruin it with the particulars, but the book has a strong, flowing, emotional pull. The main characters are complex and flawed, so much so that you do get annoyed at them, for the things they are overseeing, and yet you understand their drives, their obsessions, the things they clutch. Some of the secondary characters are more forgettable, but in this way, they do not draw focus away from the main actions. It is not an epic story, but intimate and contained.
The extremes of progress and preservation are both explored – the active and the seemingly passive. The sentences are honed and delicate and draw a gasp here and there. It is also a great novel of place and history – I would recommend it to anyone who lives in Brisbane, to think about the layers of the present city, both structural and environmental. It is a very impressive debut novel and I look forward to seeing what Simon Cleary will do next.