Monday, June 13, 2022

Review of Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock

It’s mid-2022 and Europe’s attention is on the ongoing war in Ukraine. The topics of security, economy, and resource availability are at the forefront. But in 2017, another topic was predominantly on Europe’s screens: refugees trying to escape a (Russia-involved) war in Syria. Ethics, human rights, and cultural integration/conflict were widely being discussed and handled in a variety of fashions. Into this scene Anne Charnock published a novella “The Enclave”. Having seeds of potential, in 2020 Charnock expanded it into a novel, Bridge 108.

The Enclave” was a window into the life of Caleb, a Spanish immigrant who lost his parents and now finds himself an indentured laborer in the hands of Ma Lexie in near-future Birmingham, UK. Lexie enduring her own tragedies, she daily sells her second-hand clothing at a cheap market in a poor enclave, Caleb her helper. In the enclave, immigrants like him are taken advantage of; life is not easy. He must look for his own bright spots, all the while enduring unpleasantries and the social limitations Ma Lexie and her associates impose on him. Caleb dreams of many things, and it isn’t long before he plots to get out of the enclave. He gets out, and Bridge 108 tells the story of what happens after.

Where “The Enclave” focused entirely on Caleb, Bridge 108 expands the character count—Ma Lexie, fellow immigrants, government regulators, de facto enclave leaders, etc. And if there is anything to laud the book for, it’s that Charnock does an amazing job braiding their stories together. Essentially mini-arcs, one ends naturally and another is picked up. Some arcs are returned to, while others feature shortly to complement or fill in the broader picture, then fade. Rather than a telescopic view through Caleb’s life, readers get views through multiple lives. This both builds a broader foundation for Caleb’s plight while providing the backdrop credence. Charnock’s decision to expand the novella in this fashion, that is, rather than simply extending Caleb’s story, benefits the novel.

It's inevitable to ask: which side of Europe’s 2017 refugee crisis does Bridge 108 take? Politics being politics, a lot of readers will come with expectations that Charnock “do the right thing” and represent refugees as victims, or, fears that the novel is “just more woke-ism”. For the most part, Bridge 108 sits astride this fence, playing both sides against the middle. (What “the middle” is, I will get to in a moment.) Almost all characters are at least 2D, which renders them more realistic than representative. Their viewpoints represent a spectrum of voices, meaning some objectivity is present. And lastly, politics are never overtly under discussion: quotidian life reigns supreme. All that being said, the reader will likely infer a fair amount from Caleb’s character about the book’s political stance.

The middle is emotions and sympathy. If there is anything preventing Bridge 108 from being a better novel it’s the rough edges of morality. Too often Charnock uses obvious tricks to shade her characters closer to “good” or “bad”. The result is some characters fall too easily to either side of that dichotomy. Ma Lexie is a character in a nice shade of human gray, but there are several others for whom devil horns and angle wings appear too quickly. For genre fiction this approach is fine. But for a novel that wants its characters to be taken as human, it can be a struggle to overcome. Few readers of such fiction want their sympathies/antipathies manipulated. A finer degree of subtlety to characterization would have gone a long way in this novel.

In the end, Bridge 108 is a successful expansion of Charnock’s prior novella. If “The Enclave” were a green sprout, then Bridge 108 is the flower, compete with soil, pot, and stem. The choice to weave in other points of view—not randomly but at opportune times—fills out the narrative in positive fashion. Charnock does a fair job avoiding a political agenda, but given the overt moral presentation of several key characters can’t help but be perceived as falling to one side. Truly 3D characterization would have allowed the reader to identify more strongly with the characters, not to mention mitigated the overt politics of their plights. But I suspect for most readers that Caleb’s story is of primary concern, and this rendered in engaging fashion, arriving at a satisfying, organic conclusion. Readers coming to Bridge 108 simply for that will not walk away disappointed.

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