Five people plunge to their deaths when an old Inca bridge across a gorge in Peru snaps. Who were these people? And why these five? That’s what Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, sets out to investigate in the glorious little novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan’ Brother Juniper reasons. So which one is it?
The five turn out to be a motley crew: an eccentric unloved heiress, her orphaned, obedient young assistant, a mourning twin ‘escaping’ the death of his brother, a flamboyant adventurer and the illegitimate son of a famous actress. The vividly described characters practically jump at you; they are one of the absolute highlights of this gorgeous book. Who hasn’t come across someone like the Marquesa de Montemayor, for example?
On the street you beheld an old woman, her red wig fallen a little over one ear, her left cheek angry with leprous affection, her right with a complementary adjustment of rouge.
Brother Juniper sets out to prove that it’s all God’s will, of course, but are these deaths a punishment of some sort or is it God calling home his favourite children? Or perhaps none of the above? The more he investigates, the less it makes sense.
This great little novel is about the really big things in life: love, destiny, religion and the meaning of it all, written in the most exquisite prose. I hadn’t come across a Thornton Wilder book before and that, surely, has been a mistake. His status as one of America’s great 20th century writers is well deserved. This won’t be my last.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is published by Penguin Books, 124 pages.