Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne
Harry lives in Calliope Bay, on ‘The Edge of the World’. A lazy summer stretches out before him – days spent playing with his brother Cal and friend Dibs Kelly, roaming the dunes, exploring the works. His mother has disappeared to the city, leaving behind two dozen bottles of ginger beer, but beautiful cousin Caroline is coming to stay instead.
Sydney Bridge Upside Down lulls us into the mindset of a drowsy summer, the simplicity of childish pleasures, and the excitement once felt over the prospect of ‘no school’. But every now and then there will be a line, or the quickest of thoughts flitting through Harry’s head, and we know that something is not quite right. Slowly, slowly, the unease sneaks in and hooks the reader, drawing us into the shadier side of Calliope Bay. Ballantyne is masterful at the subtle reveal, and the pages keep turning as we try to find out how it will all come together, how everything is linked. Harry is an unreliable narrator, but there is a certain boyish charm about him that makes what he eventually does fascinating rather than repulsive. He likes his Dad, watches out for his brother and only ‘bops’ people if they deserve it; it is quite heart-breaking as his sense of innocent fun deteriorates. We are compelled to watch as he slips up, backtracks and becomes overtaken by anxiety, and as Ballantyne teases out the inescapable darkness in his heart. Ballantyne’s supporting characters are all intriguing studies, most of them also unreliable. But we wonder: is this just Harry’s twisted opinion? Or are his actions justified? The reader embarks on a dark and disturbing path as we try to figure it out.
Sydney Bridge Upside Down, first published in 1968 and only now released in Australia, is largely regarded as a ‘forgotten New Zealand classic’. It is everything everyone says: disquieting, funny, charming, sinister, tragic and untamed. Also suited to a YA audience, it should deservedly find some new fans.
Samantha-Ellen Bound is a program administrator at CAE Book Groups.