Trouble Crossing the Bridge by Diana Powell
For a truly tremendous literary endeavour, there’s an extraordinary amount of science in this book. Maths, too. It starts with an equation, which seems brave: surely we’ve all heard Stephen Hawking’s warning that every equation included in a book will halve its sales? But the numerophobes who toss aside this short story collection will miss a piece of pure perfection. Clever, thought-provoking, funny, brimming with humanity, I revelled in every moment. There are fourteen stories here, and several of them made me audibly gasp. Like The Woman who Turned out to be Me, featuring a series of disappointing blind dates, their reliable sense of loss and lack echoing the life the woman has lead, until the final encounter, which – but you must read it, and see if it finds you yearning and aching the way it did me. To accomplish that in a full-length novel would be impressive enough; over ten pages it’s simply extraordinary.
The Woman who Turned out to be Me demonstrated neuroatypical behaviour, as many of Diana Powell’s characters do. There’s much talk of brains being sliced up, analysed, x-rayed, probed, medicated. Often it’s deliberately left unclear and uncertain whether there is an actual physical condition causing difficuties, as the doctors so often insist, giving us helpful explanatory metaphors, as in your thoughts have “Trouble crossing the bridge”; or whether some emotional ordeal, trauma, abuse, has led to the odd behaviour patterns exhibited. What causes insanity? She asks the question over and over and offers no definitive answers, but I enjoyed her pondering hugely.
Numbers are useful to the unhinged: they allow them to quantify pain, and thus to recognise it is always finite. Life seems less scary when you can measure it. Easy to obsess over numbers, and many of her characters lean to the obsessive. I enjoyed that. There are lots of clocks in this book; pay packets too, percentage discounts, population statistics. In Crying at Three Minutes To…, the doomsday clock haunts and obsesses a man who sees its desperate slipping seconds, its reflection of hope and despair, recreated in his own life, until it sends him to his death bed, awaiting a priest or shrink or doctor:
And all they do is pop me another pill, or slide in another needle. Anything to shut me up…Another (legal) memory suppressant, another thought blocker, another snap in my synapses – it’s what drugs do to you. I learnt it long ago. A faulty connection in my brain….
But we’ve seen the poverty and neglect that dogged his early years, and feel less confident that suppressing his memories will prove the route to healing, or that faulty connections in the brain are even partly to blame. All these narrators are unreliable, through no fault of their own: they worry about it, apologise for it, but are never entirely certain what’s happening to them, why they seem so odd. It makes for an intriguing reading experience.
Indeed, this book demands a good deal of its reader. There is nothing here to lull you; plenty to make you uneasy, disquieted. And all presented in polished, literary prose, thoughtful and clever, revealing and concealing in turn, leaving you gasping and yearning for more. It’s a long time since I was so totally gripped by a short story collection. I greatly look forward to seeing more from the pen of Diana Powell.
© 2020 Melissa Todd
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.