LONDON BRIDGE IN PLAGUE AND FIRE, A NOVEL
By David Madden
University of Tennessee Press,$29.95
Say what you will about David Madden, erstwhile novelist, playwright, LSU professor emeritus and literary agent. He never runs out of imagination. And that, imagination, is appropriately the thing that fascinates him. In Abducted By Circumstance, a woman who sees another woman abducted and envisions subsequent events of the abducted woman’s fate. In London Bridge, Madden is at it again, this time building the history of the famous bridge over part of hits 2,000-year span through the stories of some of the people who were key in construction of the bridge, such as the architect Peter de Colechurch, who began work on the bridge in 1137.
It’s a history, but not a history. De Colechurch’s life is told throught the imaginings of young poet Daryl Braintree, writing in the plague year of 1665. The youthful bard has reluctantly assumed the mantle of “Bridge Chronicler,” after his father, the Old Chronicler Lloyd Baintree, disappears (drowned in the Thames, unknown to Daryl). Daryl mistakenly thinks that the Chronicle is an actual book, not knowing Lloyd has “found his father’s secret Chronicle ledger and committed it to memory, a habit he cultivated even after his father, on his deathbed, handed the book itself to him, memorizing as he recorded each event.
“Lloyd’s now ill-fated intention had been to dictate events after his father’s death, from memory, an act of filial piety, a monument to Memory itself at first, then to his son, the would-be poet ...”
Then he slips and fall down slimy steps and slides into the river to never be seen again. The Chronicle is lost, or so it seems.
Daryl vows to reconstruct the ledger, not from memory but from his own imagination. He reconstructs the lives of famous Bridge personages like de Colechurch and throught them, the lives of other famous personages from British history such as Thomas a Becket, priest, politician and saint. The poet is inspired by his muse and mistress, the bawdy and lusty Musetta, wife to another man but bed partner to Daryl. Musetta is one of the book’s more appealing characters with her carnal gropings and deceits. She is a hedonist of first order, unashamedly so. Like many of Madden’s character, especially the women, she is not what she seems at first.
If Musette is the most appealing character in the book, the most unappealing is easily Lucien Redd.
The Old Chronicler knew Daryl was not really interested in taking up his work, so he had hand-picked another successor, the innocent young Morgan Wood. Before Morgan can learn the Old Chronicler’s secrets, his father sells him to a ship’s captain to pay off debts. Morgan is carried off to sea where he learns a seaman’s trade and eventually encounters Lucien and befriends him. Lucien is secrety evil and aspires to assault Morgan sexually. The subplot is reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and his antagonist, Claggart. Like Budd, Morgan is a Christ-figure, innocent yet accused of crimes.
The story of Morgan and Lucien are bookend the main stories, however, those imaginings of Daryl and his reporting of meetings of the guildsmen who reside on the bridge. As they recount the workings and innards of the old structure it takes on a life of its own, a bridge not only from bank to bank but from one religion to another, one life to another. It is a creaking, ticking, squeaking, smelly and dangerous old thing that bridges the gap from the unknown past to the present, just as the poet’s imagination does.
Madden’s writing is challenging. London Bridge is the sort of book against which a lover of literature can test himself. Others will be better served sticking to titles from the bestseller lists.