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Sydney Bridge Upside Down
by David Ballantyne
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I wanted to love this book as I greatly admire Kate de Goldi who wrote the introduction and it is a favourite of hers. It could be described as a coming of age story but there is a dark element to this tale with no real uplift at the end.
The setting is Calliope Bay and the introduction informs us that this is actually Hicks Bay the northern most point of the East Cape of New Zealand and this explains a great deal. These communities are indeed remote and small. It also has the ruins of the freezing works which is the setting for many incidents in the story.
Harry Baird is the narrator. I am guessing his age to be 12-13 years. The time lapse is the summer holidays and Harry's mother has gone to the city for a break. Harry is left in the care of his father, Frank, an able amputee, along with his younger brother Cal. The book introduces the various members of the community. A surprise guest, Harry's cousin, Caroline, is sent to stay with them. As the story is narrated from Harry's perspective, there is much alluded to in the story which he obviously doesn't understand and the reader is more aware of the truth of many situations than he is.
Maybe this is a fairly accurate portrayal of an isolated community. The adults appear united and supportive as one would hope in these communities but they are not fully aware of what is going on...
Recently rereleased after its original publication in 1968, this book is considered a classic in New Zealand. Harry lives with his one-legged Dad and little brother Cal in Calliope Bay - a small town at what seems like the end of the earth. Harry's Mum has gone to the city, and continues to delay her return, making excuses. Meanwhile a cousin comes to stay in Calliope Bay and Harry is smitten by her and becomes very protective and jealous of her attention. Harry's summer began with days of fun and children's games with Cal and his mate Dibbs, but it ends in confusion, loss and tragedy, when Harry is forced to grow up way too soon.
There are many ways to describe Sydney Bridge (in our house, the words “sydney bridge” are always the book, not the splendid piece of Australian engineering): a coming-of-age story, gothic anti-romance, ruined-pastoral thriller, family tragedy. It has been variously assessed as proletarian fiction, young adult fiction and post-provincial fiction. It is all those things, of course, and is also the pre-eminent example of slaughterhouse fiction – an abandoned meat-works is both the central symbol of the novel and the site of the story’s most troubling events.
For me, the most piquant description of the book was Evans’ own. Sydney Bridge Upside Down, he said when introducing it to us, is the great, and unread, New Zealand novel. Merely picking up the book to read it, then, was instant admission to a select literary community. Actually, reading it was a beautiful and sinister and unforgettable experience.
Harry Baird lives with his mother, father and younger brother Cal in Calliope Bay, at the edge of the world. Summer has come, and those who can have left the bay for the allure of the far away city. Among them is Harry's mother, who has left behind a case of homemade ginger beer and a vague promise of return. Harry and Cal are too busy enjoying their holidays, playing in the caves and the old abandoned slaughterhouse, to be too concerned with her absence. When their older cousin—the beautiful, sophisticated Caroline—comes from the city to stay with the Bairds, Harry is besotted. With their friend Dibs Kelly, the boys and Caroline spend the long summer days exploring the bay and playing games.But Harry is very protective of Caroline and jealous of the attention she receives from other men. And what looked to be a pleasurable summer is overshadowed by certain 'accidents' in the old slaughterhouse and a general air of suspicion and distrust. There was a simple country boy who lived on the edge of the world, and his name was Harry Baird. That is not the whole story. First published in 1968, Sydney Bridge Upside Downhas long been considered a New Zealand literary masterpiece. Published now for the first time in Australia, this brilliant tale, told in an entirely distinctive voice, deserves a place on the bookshelf alongside period classics like Wake in Frightand My Brother Jack.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.2Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Pre-Elizabethan 1400-1558
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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.
There is a darkness to this story that we sense immediately but as Harry continues with his story, we realize that the darkness originates with him. We also put the pieces together about exactly why the mother is gone and who she has left with. Harry loves fun and good times, but he also likes things to go the way he wants and he makes sure that they do. He bullies his brother and his friend, Dibs, he lies, charms and laughs his way out of trouble. Sydney Bridge, Upside Down is actually a horse owned by the local recluse who sees Harry for exactly what he is.
Sydney Bridge, Upside Down is excellently written. The author respects his readers and doesn’t spell anything out, leaving it to us to figure out what is happening and why. It was originally published in 1968 so is slightly dated but the book is an interesting mixture of thriller, coming-of-age story and family tragedy that made for a very intense and satisfying read. ( )