Under the Bridge by Anne Bishop

Near the end of Under the Bridge (2019, Roseway Publishing)*, Lucy, the narrator and central figure of the story, stops walking near the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge and reflects:

“I can see the bridge from the corner of Devonshire and Barrington, lights arching off into the dusk, reflected in the inky black water below. The Dartmouth end is hidden by the bulk of the shipyard. I crave my hiding place in the woods by the dockyard fence, but my new cane-supported gait won’t take me any farther. The breeze off the harbour tells me my face is wet. I fish in my pocket for a tissue. Nothing, so I blow my nose on the sleeve of my sweater, scrub at my eyes with the other sleeve. Sniffing, I allow my eyes to follow the curve of the bridge. How long ago was it I thought about jumping? I’m upset, but I can’t imagine doing that now.”

Yet, at one time (at the beginning of her story) she definitely thought about it, as she was homeless and sleeping under the same bridge. What brought about such a change in Lucy? Why was she homeless in Halifax? Anne Bishop’s eloquent novel is all too real, dealing as it does with the issues of the homeless, how they survive, who fights their legal battles and so on. Then there are those who want to bring about change to the system (as Lucy once did) and be activists for justice. Lucy is the bridge between these two groups, and along the way, Lucy herself rediscovers herself and finds a purpose for her 60-ish self in a world of young Turks.

“I allow my eyes to follow the curve of the bridge. How long ago was it I thought about jumping?”

However, this rediscovery comes at a cost: she must fulfill the obligations of her parole (for assaulting a co-worker) and get her anger under control. Then perhaps, she can return to Guatemala where she once intended to serve as a missionary, but the injustices of a large corporation illegally appropriating land from the indigenous residents to set up a nickel mine (“nickel is the metal of war” she is told) takes her focus away from religion and more towards helping the poor displaced persons survive, until it is too much for her and she must return home. Sadly, she has seen and experienced so much bloodshed that her anger causes her to act out, resulting in her incarceration and being under probation.

Last time in court Judith [her lawyer] argued I’m harmless. Judge agreed, then gave me thirty days anyway. Harmless. Powerless. God knows I’ve tried. And the rich are richer and the poor are poorer than when I started. “You want to help us? Then go home,” Rosa said. “Our poverty and suffering come from el Norte.” The North. So much more than just a direction.

While on the streets and foraging through dumpsters behind restaurants for food, she encounters Bara, a teen girl who has been kicked out of her fundamentalist Christian home for being something her parents cannot tolerate. Bara comes from a middle-class neighbourhood and has no street-smarts, so she hangs around with Lucy (who is sixty-ish) and becomes her friend and constant companion. This is the beginnings of Lucy’s coming back to life, and Bara’s awakening to life as it really is for many millions of Canadians living at a subsistence level.

Under the Bridge had my full attention every step of the way. It is full of sensitive, thought-provoking dialogues as well as Lucy’s reflections on life after Guatemala and coping with the infirmities of ageing while living on the streets and sleeping in shelters at night. I found it insightful as to the predicament of the homeless, or others like Cindy, a sex-trade worker who finds that prostitution pays much better than social assistance, which doesn’t provide nearly enough for food and shelter for her and her two kids, which are often in foster homes when Cindy is arrested and serving time. It’s a Catch-22 for her. Then there is Judith a tireless Legal Aid advocate and friend to people like Lucy and Cindy. Hers is a story unto itself. If it sounds like a lot of different plotlines, it is. It seems Lucy’s world is always in continual motion around her, which keeps her distracted from her Guatemalan past, but keeps the reader on their toes trying to recall everyone’s role and/or circumstances.

In short, Under the Bridge is a turbulent novel of fact-based fiction that highlights the need for urgent social and societal change so that more disadvantaged and marginalized people do not fall through the huge gaps (they are no longer cracks) in mental wellness and healthcare, privatization of land and poverty in general. Anne Bishop’s book may well change your attitude toward such things.

Under the Bridge by Anne Bishop
Roseway Publishing (an imprint of Fernwood Publications)

*This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy that was supplied by the publisher. Under the Bridge will be released April 1, 2019. You may pre-order it at amazon.ca using the link below or by clicking here: https://amzn.to/2X5SrKT (Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using these links I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

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