The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Julie Orringer is an American writer.  Her first book is a collection of short stories called How to Breathe Underwater.  The Invisible Bridge is her second book.  Here is what Michael Chabon had to say about it:

“To bring an entire lost world – its sights, its smells, its heartaches, raptures, and terrors – to vivid life between the covers of the novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul, as Julie Orringer does in The Invisible Bridge, takes something more like genius.”

Sounds promising, right?  I agree.  This is a big, beautiful book, and I loved it.bridge_pbcover_235

What it’s about:  This is a story based on the author’s own family history, and it is obvious that a lot of research went into this novel.  The story takes place in Europe during the Second World War.  The main character, Andras, is a young Jewish man from Hungary who goes to Paris in 1938 to study architecture.  There he meets, and falls in love with, Klara.  The events that take place next, and for the rest of the book, are fueled by the war.  Everyone’s lives become very different from what they had imagined them to be.  The story takes us back to Hungary and what it is like there for Jewish citizens, and specifically, the family we have come to know.

“The fact that he’d had a happy childhood in Konyar, had gone to school, learned to draw, gone to Paris, fallen in love, studied, worked, had a son – none of it was predictive of what might happen in the future; it was largely a matter of luck.  None of it was a reward, no more than the Munkaszolgalat (labour force) was a punishment; none of it entitled him to future happiness or comfort.  Men and women suffered all over the world.”

Julie Orringer does a good job of putting us there, letting us feel and know what it’s like to be the characters, as much as that’s possible in a book.  I learned so much.  I came away with a feeling of what it might have been like.  The devastation of the holocaust astounds me.  The facts are so staggering it is hard to really grasp it all.  In the book, Andras describes it well in my favourite passage:

“One and a half Jewish men and women and children: how was anyone to understand a number like that?  Andras knew it took 3000 to fill the seats of the Dohany St. Synagogue.  To accommodate a million and a half, one would have to replicate that building, …, five hundred times.  And then to envision each of those 500 synagogues filled to capacity, to envision each man and woman and child inside as a unique and irreplaceable human being, …, each of them with desires and fears, a mother and a father, a birthplace, a bed, a first love, a web of memories, a cache of secrets, a skin, a heart, an infinitely complicated brain – to imagine them that way, and then to imagine them dead, extinguished for all time – how could anyone begin to grasp it?  The idea could drive a person mad.”

Although there are many sad parts in this book (how can there not be in a book about the Holocaust), there are also many happy times.  Despite the war, the families continue to live and love and plan for the future.  I recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those of you who enjoy learning about WWII through historical fiction.  There are many books out there that take place during WWII, some good, some bad, but this is one of the good ones.  It stayed with me for a long time.

Another favourite passage, a reminder of the precariousness of life:

“In the end, what astonished him the most was not the vastness of it all … but the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which every life was balanced.  The scale might be tipped by the tiniest of things:  the lice that carried typhus, the few thimblefuls of water that remained in a canteen, the dust of breadcrumbs in a pocket.”

Other WWII books I have loved:

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

My Enemy’s Cradle by Sara Young

Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer, Annie Barrows

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

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