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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Birth of a Bridge

Maylis de Kerangal

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To purchase Birth of a Bridge

Title: Birth of a Bridge
Author: Maylis de Kerangal
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 244 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Birth of a Bridge - US
Birth of a Bridge - UK
Birth of a Bridge - Canada
Naissance d'un pont - Canada
Naissance d'un pont - France
Die Brücke von Coca - Deutschland
Nascita di un ponte - Italia
Nacimiento de un puente - España
  • French title: Naissance d'un pont
  • Translated and with a Translator's Note by Jessica Moore

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sparkling modern social (in largest sense) novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/11/2012 Niklas Bender
The Independent . 6/7/2015 J.S.Tennant
NZZ . 3/7/2012 Thomas Laux
Wall St. Journal A 7/11/2014 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es ist der mitreißende Roman einer Baustelle und die überzeugende Bestandsaufnahme unserer Gegenwart. (...) Der Roman wirkt unentschieden: Kommt hier der Fortschritt an sein Ende, zwischen Dschungelgrün und einer fortgeworfenen Sandalette ? Oder ist das die Ruhe vor dem nächsten Projekt ? Diese Frage, Europas Frage, lässt Kerangal offen." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The short passages that make up the text build, piece by piece, like the frame of the bridge itself. The way De Kerangal uses imagery is unusual, compressing description into tense vignettes." - J.S.Tennant, The Independent

  • "Trotz rudimentär angerissenen Biografien einzelner Figuren und unterschiedlichen zwischenmenschlichen Konflikten werden psychologische Momente dabei eher in den Hintergrund gestellt. Der Roman besticht durch seinen eigenwilligen Tonfall, durch einen emotionsarmen Realismus und einen fast dokumentarischen Charakter. Gleichwohl gibt er zu keinem Zeitpunkt seine massvoll eingesetzte Spannung preis." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Ms. de Kerangal’s writing is always exuberant (and boisterously translated by Jessica Moore) (.....) This delightful book’s unabashed idealism, combined with those playfully literary proper names, marks it as a kind of aspirational fairy tale." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Birth of a Bridge is a novel about a present-day construction project, the building of a grand bridge by a multinational consortium on America's West Coast, in the fictional city of Coca. It's a big project -- projected to cost three billion dollars, where "thirty million cubic yards of concrete will be poured before the cables are placed":

The architect announces measurements comparable to those of the longest suspension bridges in the world. Length: 6,200 feet; centre suspension span: 4,100 feet; width: 100 feet; height of the deck above the water: 230 feet; height of the towers: 750 feet. A delusion of grandeur, like an enormous desire contained within a very small body.
       (A 4,100 suspension span makes it comparable to the Golden Gate or Verrazano–Narrows bridges.)
       In some ways, Birth of a Bridge harks back to the American and Soviet industrial novels of nearly a century ago which glorified the triumph of industry and engineering, reveling in great feats of construction that required both brilliant scientific minds and a vast nameless army of industrious workers (as well as -- though there was always less emphasis on this -- a great deal of capital). De Kerangal's is a modern variation on this kind of novel, and she manages to create both an effective timeless/universal feel -- much of it through her language, that echoes some of these older novels but to which she adds her own sparkling toch -- as well as situating it it very well in current times.
       In her description of some of the other construction projects some of her characters have been involved in, as well as the tender process, down to the small announcement in The New York Times, this is a novel of our age. The firms behind the project are international -- Pontoverde is a consortium of a French, an American, and an Indian company -- and many of those employed on the project come from far far away -- as far away as China.
       De Kerangal focuses on a cross-section of those playing a part in the construction of the bridge, offering some background on a handful of characters, and then returning to them repeatedly over the course of the narrative, including itinerant Georges Diderot, the man in charge on site; the diminutive crane-operator Sanche Alphonse Cameron, spending his days towering over the site in his small crane-cabin; Mo Yun, driven to seek out opportunity far from his birthplace; Katherine Thoreau, seeing opportunity, even as she is weighed down by the family she has to support. There is overlap in their stories on (and off) the construction site -- notably between Diderot and Katherine -- but these and the other personal stories are only part of the large mosaic de Kerangal presents. Others figure prominently briefly too, from the environmentalists who briefly manage to bring construction to a halt to daredevil workers who get themselves fired. Personal assault and even a plan for large-scale sabotage also occur, and there are several dead bodies along the way.
       It is the larger vision which dominates, the sense of all the changes the idea of the bridge and then its construction bring, at every level from the personal to the global. As in a construction project, pieces are slotted in in a particular order -- and while, like the bridge, the narrative is built-up over time, parts are pointedly not as presented as they might be in a more traditional work of fiction. So, for example, only midway through the book does de Kerangal have a section 'Sizing up the Place', describing the evolution of the city of Coca from its beginnings to the present-day, from frontier town to the "bored, super-provincial, and so confined" city of the near-present-day and then contemporary Coca, led by visionary man of (dubious) action, mayor John 'the Boa' Johnson, who "sees himself as a Medici", and whose grand ambition is the bridge.
       In her Translator's Note Jessica Moore mentions the challenges of dealing with de Kerangal's writing, as the author:
is comfortable taking a number of risks with language and syntax, including the omission of articles, prepositions, and punctuation, and the invention of words or new uses for them.
       Credit to Moore for managing the shift into English well, and to both author and translator for their use of language, which is striking but not opaque, and appealingly (as opposed to annoyingly) unusual. De Kerangal's writing doesn't feel willfully experimental, even though she is constantly at play -- a fine ear makes for a fascinating read, at once familiar and yet strange, contemporary yet constantly echoing -- sometimes with a wink -- prose of previous eras.
       If there is any weakness it is in the use of the characters, whom de Kerangal too often seems to want to endow with a bit more character but can't quite, leaving them as cogs in her otherwise well-oiled machinery that don't quite work as they should. Still, Birth of a Bridge impresses on its various levels, from the wonderful writing to its vivid episodes and much of the background-filler, as well as the larger pictures de Kerangal creates out of all this.
       An impressive industrial and workplace (and quite a bit more) novel of contemporary times, by a remarkable stylist.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 November 2014

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Birth of a Bridge: Reviews: Other books by Maylis de Kerangal under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Maylis de Kerangal was born in 1967.

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© 2014-2016 the complete review

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