With her 2003 debut collection of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer established herself as a young writer to watch. With remarkable calm and confidence, How to Breathe Underwater deftly chronicles various trials of girlhood, from the politics of grammar school popularity to the isolation and loneliness of loss. And while the range of the material was limited, these stories showed an admirable level of craftsmanship and sensitivity. As poised as that book was, however, there was scant indication of the power and scope to come in her follow-up, The Invisible Bridge.
The novel opens in 1937 with young Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew from Budapest, on a train to Paris to begin study at the Escole Speciale d'Architecture. The first half of The Invisible Bridge follows Andras in his life and studies, making friends, learning the language, falling in love, and laying the groundwork for the rest of his life. It is in many ways a fairly conventional roman a clef, though Orringer's evocation of pre-war Paris (especially its architecture) lends it considerable richness and texture. But it is the knowledge of future-history that gives this first section urgency and pathos, for we know that the world Andras creates for himself will soon come under assault.
The second half of The Invisible Bridge is as relentless and harrowing as the first half is redolent: Andras must return to Hungary, his fiance in tow, to serve in the military labor force. We watch as the situation of the Levi family, and all the Jews in Hungary, deteriorates: seizure of property turns into eviction, eviction to internment, internment to execution.
For many readers, the story of Hungary's role in World War II, and the fate of its Jewish population, is largely unfamiliar. As a result, there is a certain degree of suspense here that perhaps would not be had the story taken place in Germany, France, or another of the war's more familiar locations.
Like many Holocaust stories, this one is harrowing, but the time Orringer spent establishing these characters and these stories in the first half of the book deepens our investment; the dreadful cost is brought home all the more powerfully because The Invisible Bridge shows us a time before the fall.
Orringer's great achievement here is to give us the Holocaust anew, to remind us of the scale of what was lost and to cherish what survived.