The Invisible Bridge. Julie Orringer.

Orringer, Julie. The Invisible Bridge. Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2010. F;8/17

Impressed by Orringer’s short stories, I tackled this wonderful Second World War novel. I wasn’t disappointed. The short stories’ tight solo emotional riffs seemed to grow in this long (784 pages) tale into sentiments that felt like a full European symphony orchestra. Like being in the middle of a full European symphony orchestra.

Andras is a young Hungarian Jew who travels to Paris on an architect-school scholarship in the 1930s. He falls in love with a slim older ballet teacher who is mysteriously connected to his family, but as the relationship deepens his training is cut short by racist and military events of the war. The two of them return to Budapest, and there over several years are devastated by the tightening of Hitler’s antisemitic grip on Europe.

Julie Orringer is Jewish and has a gift for making terror, arrogance, heroism, risk, and grinding misery real through straightforward events. Love never completely disappears in piss-stinking boxcars trundling toward horror for days with no water, late-night raids on families in the city, and snitches selling others out to survive.

The work parties Andras endures have the same kind of intensity as the experiences in Narrow Road to the Deep North. Horrifying.

But I never had any of the suspicion I got reading The Hare with Amber Eyes that the author was depending on universal revulsion for the Holocaust to dare us not to be impressed with his story. Orringer’s characters were real, independent of the source of what was happening to them.

There were a few gratuitous coincidences: twice a benign German general appeared in a labour camp and rescued Andras, and once he ran into a ghetto fairy godmother wandering at random in the streets of bombed-out Budapest who reunited him with family. But these are quibbles against the rising and falling tide of dramatic momentum in this story. I always wanted to get back to reading, there was so much period-perfect writing: “A carbonated joy rose up in Andras’s chest.” “The scent of (September) blew through the channel of the Seine like the perfume of a girl on the threshold of a party.” “…Jozsef released an unforgettable sound: a grating three-toned shriek that seemed to crack the dome of the sky.”

Survivors at the end of the story making it to America, changing their names, and a modern granddaughter connecting with their experiences personally affected me. My dad was practically grabbed in 1938 Czechoslovakia by his uncle, and put on a plane for London. In Vancouver with surviving older relatives who established a successful business he, like Orringer’s fictional family, changed his name, and married an Irish-English girl from Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. I grew up a WASPy Sloan going to United Church sunday school and playing ice hockey. It wasn’t until late in my childhood turning to adolescence that I knew my father’s family were not Sloans but Sonnenscheins, and were Jewish and European. And later still that I understood that some of them were in the death camps, and some never got out.

Still my experience of this story  comes mostly from the author’s powerful imagination fully engaged, not from my own poorly-realized appreciation of my heritage. Highly recommended: it’s a gripping read. 8.9/9.4

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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