April 24, 2013KR OnlineReview

“A Thought Turned to Stone”: David Madden’s London Bridge in Plague and Fire

Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 2012. 340 pages. $29.95
(Click on cover image to purchase)

David Madden’s thirteenth book of fiction is a daringly imagined mythology of London Bridge—its conception by Peter de Colechurch, its construction, its meaning in history, both metaphorical and literal, and its core relevance to Great Britain and its empire. Madden begins his work with a two-page preface, To My Reader, in which he describes his research, calling the work a “meditative narrative,” and ends his remarks by addressing the reader in a direct plea for collaboration and by a fervent avowal: “I trust you.”

Complete with a “dramatis personae” identifying twenty-six characters whose voices he appropriates, not counting an omniscient narrator appearing at strategic points, the apparatus of the novel includes a listing of books Madden “has read or delved into over the decades.” It is a work that has grown and matured, a narrative whose voices have haunted and fed the author’s imagination as he has dreamed the story of London Bridge. The most frequent speaker is Daryl Braintree, a seventeenth century poet/chronicler of the bridge, who sees the structure as truly “thought turned to stone.” He seeks an understanding of what the bridge means and has meant over the ages, and he frequently resorts to using the words of contemporaries in his tireless quest, including such writers as Samuel Pepys, John Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, and John Donne.

Not only is the bridge itself a “thought become stone,” it is declared at points an organism, a creature which can become sick and well, a gravesite, the dwelling place of hundreds in houses built directly on the structure over the River Thames. It is the location of churches and shops and manufactories, the inspiration for poems and songs and tales, and the display facility for the severed heads of traitors put up on pikes to rot in warning and vengeance. The plot structure Madden uses to hold all this swarm of humanity together centers about two young men forced to leave their early years on London Bridge for life on the sea. One has been made a child of evil by sadistic treatment, the other has been drawn in the opposite direction, and both return after seven years to the bridge. Their homecoming brings with it a particularly horrific set of ending events.

The year is 1666, after the plague has racked London and the bridge, and after the Great Fire has occurred and yet smolders in fact and in the fears of the dwellers on the structure crossing the Thames. Lucien Redd, the spawn of Satan, is hired by a syndicate of London Bridge merchants to kidnap a virgin child whose “mewing up” in the foundation of the bridge will assure good fortune, according to “pagan” belief. The narrative of the novel works its way to conclusion in conjunction with the evildoer’s quest, accomplishment of it, and the spiritual result. Morgan Wood functions in angelic contrast to Lucien Redd’s hellish role.

Madden’s mastery of dialogue and his ability to create ongoing narrative suspense are manifestly evident in London Bridge in Plague and Fire. He handles first person voices masterfully, he fully realizes what he intends, (a well-grounded meditative narrative), and he paints the historical canvas of his fictional world with energy and skill. He has assured his readers he trusts them, and by the time we are well into the world he creates, he has powerfully earned our trust as collaborators in this compelling feat of imagination.

Gerald Duff has published a total of fifteen books, including novels, collections of short stories and poems, and books of nonfiction. His most recent works are a memoir, Home Truths: A Deep East Texas Memory and two novels, Blue Sabine, a tale of the generations of women of one deep East Texas family, and Dirty Rice: A Year in the Evangeline League, which is set in the midst of the Great Depression.