Rebecca Godfrey (photo: Brigitte Lacombe); Leslie Jamison (photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
I came to Rebecca Godfrey’s Under the Bridge as a woman who has had a long-term love affair with sadness and a fraught relationship to anger, as a guilty wielder of weaponized vulnerability, and as a writer fascinated by the ways we try to represent the suffering of others. Which is to say, I came to this extraordinary book with all sorts of personal and creative baggage. But part of its importance, I think, stems from the fact that very few readers could possibly approach this book without baggage. Under the Bridge directs itself toward questions that cut to the core for all of us: How does sadness transmute into rage? Where does violence come from, and how should we expect to find any sort of meaning in it? What do we do with acts of aggression that seem to defy understanding or explanation?
Under the Bridge explores the life and death of fourteen-year-old Reena Virk, a Canadian high school student beaten and murdered in 1997 by a group of teenagers, some of them classmates. Godfrey’s book tells a shocking story, but the most searing impressions it left on me weren’t the stuff of Law and Order reruns, but rather quieter moments of humanity and heartbreak: the rusty car of a grieving uncle, the meticulous beauty regime of a girl in foster care, the Gandhi quote a boy decides to include in one of his letters from prison—how he writes it down to fill up space, then second-guesses himself and erases it, then ultimately decides to write it again.
If true crime as a literary genre often gets a bad rap—dismissed as intrinsically voyeuristic, as if violence were the sworn enemy of profundity—then Under the Bridge is a brilliant illustration of what that knee-jerk dismissal ignores. If we bring rigorous, unflinching attention to acts of unthinkable cruelty, to our rage and our betrayals—we can find difficult and important truths lurking inside sensational stories: truths about trauma and its afterlife, varieties of claustrophobia, and the dark alchemies by which sadness or longing turn to anger.
Perhaps true crime has been dismissed because too many stories about crime have been told with too much fidelity to formula, and too little fidelity to nuance. Under the Bridge runs against the grain in both senses: it pays close attention to the complexity of human life—its ordinary days, as well as its moments of extremity—and refuses the standard tropes and narrative formulas of the genre.
The book is structured as a kaleidoscope of closely observed narrative fragments—drawn from more than three hundred interviews—that toggle between the perspectives of a large cast. In this prism, the book observes the lives of its subjects so closely that they slough off all the familiar snakeskins of archetype: The Evil Villain, the Innocent Victim, the Slut or the Savior or the Bad Girl or the Saint. Godfrey brings the granular gaze of a novelist to the kind of material often flattened into moralizing argument, and her characters emerge as mysterious, contradictory, heartbreaking, and plural—in short, as human. She lets them hum and shimmer and confound us. Her illumination leaves room for the persistence of mystery in a way that feels aesthetically ambitious and also humble, and ethically useful in that humility. Read More