book-reviews

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder

Rating: ★★★★

A bridge collapses in Peru. Five people are killed. A priest with a history of attempting to prove God's glory to the doubters decides to use this as an opportunity. He investigates the lives of these five, so much as he is able, to attempt to discern why it is they should die. His findings are laid out, bare of interpretation, for the reader to examine.

Perhaps typically, this is viewed as heresy, and the priest will later be burnt alive with his book, which was seen as attacking that which it set out to defend (and at any rate, we should not try to discern God's will, or something). While no overt judgement is passed in the text, it seems to me fairly clear that there is no direction or cosmic pattern behind the selection of these five. Some knew each other, but that is unsurprising for people crossing a bridge at the same time. None of their lives have strong parallels, they are neither great sinners nor saints. It is hard to see how this can be read as anything other than a denial of God, but then I thought the same of Life of Pi, so who knows?

If the message of the book is intended to be nothing more than the shrug of 'shit happens', then it is a simple message being wrapped in some poetic writing. Wilder conjures a range of human experience in his tally of five lives (though in fact much attention is given to a survivor, perhaps as a bluff), and does so in an economical and fatalistic manner, with the occasional spark of morbid humour ("He promised the boy that they would stop for breath when they had crossed the bridge. As it turned out, that would prove unnecessary"). Certainly not as tedious or serious as some of its most-quoted lines and descriptions make it sound, and short enough to easily read in one sitting, The Bridge of San Luis Rey seems ideal for a reader you're aiming at introducing to 'literary' fiction, and ripe with material for a book group discussion.