Bridge Of Sand, by Janet Burroway (Pier 9)

 Janet Burroway is best known for Writing Fiction, which is cited in just about every university’s Creative Writing programme (whether it is cited respectfully or dismissively varies from programme to programme). It came as a surprise that she has also written seven novels. Bridge of Sand (terrible title) begins on the 11th of September, 2001: as the protagonist drives to her husband’s funeral, she notices smoke rising in a Pennsylvania field.

Her personal tragedy is subsumed in a much greater one, and this concurrence of events small and large is a thread that runs through the novel. The reason for this isn’t always clear – to show how headlines translate into meaning in individual lives, perhaps. The unfortunate effect, though, is to diminish the latter’s importance, and although the novel is always perceptively and sometimes beautifully written, it’s hard to care very much about Dana, the widow, and her travails.

In the funeral’s aftermath, Dana’s life begins to unravel: her state senator husband, whom she was about to leave before his terminal illness was diagnosed, had made unwise investments, leaving her nearly destitute. As a politician’s wife, she is unfitted for any particular profession, and in the hackneyed way of fiction (I’ve never heard of anyone doing this in real life), she takes to the road on a long journey south, to her childhood hometown. She picks up an old acquaintance, Cassius, a man with an angry, violent ex-wife and a daughter. Their relationship begins, but Dana is white and Cassius is black, and racial undercurrents and the threats of the ex-wife cause Dana to flee further south, to Florida, where she ends up caretaking a run-down store for its ailing, soon deceased owner.

Here, the novel is at its best, as Burroway patiently delineates the lives of ordinary, none-too-bright, nosey, avaricious yet often kindly locals in a dilapidated coastal town. The realism is a substantial achievement, an accretion of finely selected details. Dana, though, is marking time, waiting for her lover to join her, and as this waiting around occupies the larger proportion of the novel, it becomes tiresome. Or rather, Dana herself becomes tiresome: the narration, though in the third person, is filtered through Dana’s perceptual frame – and if we are going to trail around with one character all the time, it would help if that character were a more interesting companion. Intermittently she phones her wisecracking, cynical friend back in Pennsylvania, who, in the also hackneyed tradition of such friends, delivers doses of sage advice (which Dana of course ignores) and swags of exposition.

The jacket blurb compares Burroway to John Updike, presumably because of her convincing portrayal of ordinary lives. Richard Ford, another American novelist, also comes to mind. But unlike the example of these novelists, what Burroway reveals beneath the layers of her characters’ ordinary selves is only more ordinariness – which makes one wonder, in the end, at the intelligent attention bestowed upon them.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets