The Accidental Rift

Reviewed by Frances Taliaferro
Sunday, December 10, 2006


A Novel

By Mary Lawson

Dial. 296 pp. $25

Some stories are as old as storytelling itself. Transpose them to our own time and their power is unaffected; peel away the particular circumstances and the core remains as fresh as it was in the Fertile Crescent. Slaying a monster, finding a treasure, surviving a natural disaster -- all are good tales, but none is so timeless as the story of rivalry between brothers.

That tale is at the heart of Mary Lawson's excellent second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, which begins in the 1930s. Arthur and Jake Dunn are the sons of a farmer in the Canadian North. Arthur is large, kind, awkward, hard-working and trustworthy. Jake is a smaller fellow, clever and reckless, unscrupulous and charming. Arthur, hopeless in school, will be a good farmer like his father. Jake, adored and protected by his mother, knows how to avoid lifting a finger for anybody but himself.

Experience has made Arthur wary of Jake's gift for getting other people in trouble. The decisive moment happens at the bridge of the novel's title: an accident that nearly kills Jake. Jake brought it on himself, but Arthur feels guilty enough because he might have averted it. Ever after, Jake will make manipulative use of the accident and of Arthur's feelings -- until Jake leaves to make his fortune in the city.

We learn of these events as they happen, from Arthur's point of view. His story alternates with another that begins in the late 1950s and is told from the perspective of Ian Christopherson, a high school student who gets a summer job at Arthur's farm. Ian's father is the town doctor; Ian's mother has left the family for her lover in Toronto. Hurt and disgusted by his mother's departure, Ian develops a crush on Arthur's beautiful wife, even though -- or perhaps because -- she's the mother of three. Ian's point of view enriches his chapters; he's a good learner, a perceptive observer of this marriage and of Jake's eventual reappearance in Arthur's life. It would be unfair to give away the particulars; I'll just say that the brothers' reunion plays out with tragic inevitability.

Lawson is an Ontario native who now lives in England. As in her first novel, Crow Lake, this story is framed by the severe beauty of northern Canada, which drives away those who regard it as a wasteland but shapes the souls of those who love it. Lawson notes the humble details: horses "cropping grass with a sound like tearing bedsheets"; timber wolves "waiting for humans to move on, or die out, so that they could reclaim the land." Young Ian's best friend Pete, an Indian, loves the land and will choose to stay in the North as a guide: That way, he can steer rich tourists away from ruining the good fishing spots.

Lawson brings to life the social history of this isolated world, as the little town of Struan endures the pain of the Depression and the deprivations of World War II. Arthur tries to enlist but is disqualified by his flat feet; ruefully, dutifully, he stays home to run the farm with the help of two German prisoners of war. Of Arthur's boyhood gang, only one man returns alive -- and nearly quadriplegic. Arthur's shadowed 1940s slip into Ian's sunnier 1950s: Elvis on the radio, burgers and fries at red Formica tables, "easy" girls and "nice" girls, insistent hormones and looming final exams.

We see Ian struggling to find his own future, rebelling against the foregone conclusion that he'll be the town's third Dr. Christopherson in a row. As it is, he assists his father with a huge range of patients: a child with measles, a logger bleeding to death from a knife wound. However Ian demurs, the right choice of profession is obvious. (And the medical scenes feel authentic -- Lawson has done her homework.)

In these particulars, a deeper story gathers force: There's an almost Sophoclean momentum as events rush to their end. The reader prays that inescapable harm will not come to good people. But the novel's true literary antecedent is in Genesis: the story of Esau and Jacob, brothers in a dysfunctional family where each parent has a favorite child and the younger son can think circles around the older. Lawson honors these archetypes by using them discreetly; biblical undertones simply add to the story's richness.

The Other Side of the Bridge is an admirable novel. Its old-fashioned virtues were also apparent in Crow Lake-- narrative clarity, emotional directness, moral context and lack of pretension -- but Lawson has ripened as a writer, and this second novel is much broader and deeper. The author draws her characters with unobtrusive humor and compassion, and she meets one of the fiction writer's most difficult challenges: to portray goodness believably, without sugar or sentiment. ยท

Frances Taliaferro is a writer in New York.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company