Any book that follows the lives of European Jewish men and women during the years before and during the Holocaust necessarily traces an unhappy downward spiral. With each awful event, the characters imagine their troubles cannot possibly get any worse, and then everything gets impossibly worse. The Invisible Bridge is no different, but Julie Orringer has managed to bring a freshness to the ordeal. Focusing on the horrors experienced by Hungarian Jews, her novel not only depicts the personal experiences of an appealing cast of characters, it also offers a step-by-step historically factual explanation of what was happening in Budapest and throughout the rest of the country from 1937 until armistice was declared. Thoroughly researched and carefully written, The Invisible Bridge offers an extraordinary glimpse of what must have been happening to civilians caught by Hitler’s war.
Orringer tells the stories of three brothers—the eldest studying medicine in Italy, the second studying architecture in Paris, and the youngest still at home with their parents in Konyár. Slowly Hitler’s vise closes on Europe. Student visas are cancelled, and ultimately all young Jewish Hungarian men are forced to work far from their families, toiling for Labor Service companies where conditions are increasingly desperate. Their assignments vary, from cutting timber and building roads to shoveling coal and digging mass graves.
At the same time, the Lévi brothers also are falling in love, marrying, and agonizing over their lost careers and their imagined fates. As the novel progresses, Orringer introduces many other compelling characters, too, including the entire family of one of the Lévi wives. This array of men, women, and children allows Orringer to depict a wide range of wartime experiences, described from both outside and in. That is, many of the trials and tribulations are never seen directly, but are only revealed when two characters who have been separated reconnect with each other. Then they tell their stories, while their listeners weep. Not only is this a fascinating way of communicating the broad scope of what is happening everywhere in Hungary, but it also lets the reader sense the horror of not being able to control either one’s own destiny or the harrowing circumstances of loved ones.
Andras, the would-be architect, acknowledges that who survives and who does not will be “largely a matter of luck.” He knows that hundreds of thousands already have died, and that he might be doomed, too. “The things he could control were few and small; he was a particle of life, a speck of human dust, lost on the eastern edge of Europe.” Still musing, he recognizes that he “had to pretend it wasn’t hopeless; he had to allow himself to be fooled into staying alive.” Just as Andras understands, no reader can predict who will survive until the end of The Invisible Bridge and who will not. There are moments of incredibly good luck and other moments of devastatingly bad fortune.
In truth, there are many moments of both. Orringer’s novel is a huge one, nearly 760 pages, so it is a book for those who love Victorian novels, long complicated plots, and dramatis personae galore. Anyone who wants to finish a story in a single sitting or two will find The Invisible Bridge an impossible read. However, anyone who wants to immerse him or herself in an explosive, dynamic, and ever-changing milieu will be engrossed by every word. Besides, there is an important history lesson to be learned from this novel’s pages. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Julie Orringer: How to Breathe Under Water