There was an old man who lived on the edge of the world and he had a horse called Sydney Bridge Upside Down. He was a scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow-moving bag of bones, and I start with this man and his horse because they were there for all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer, always somewhere around.
David Ballantyne’s haunting novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down was originally published in 1968 and it is a fascinating read. It is a neglected New Zealand classic that has been rediscovered for a new audience. The book is a coming of age story with gothic elements and a young adult classic.
I have read it twice now and I know that I will read it again as there is so much to absorb in it. It is unsettling, it is odd and it is unforgettable.
The narrator of Sydney Bridge Upside Down Harry Baird lives in tiny, isolated Calliope Bay on “the edge of the world” with his mother, father and younger brother Cal. Summer has come, and those who can have left the bay for the attractions of the distant and unnamed city. Among them is Harry’s mother, who has left behind a case of homemade ginger beer and a vague promise of return. Harry and Cal are too busy enjoying their holidays, playing in the caves and the old abandoned slaughterhouse, to be too concerned with her absence. When their older cousin, the alluring Caroline comes from the city to stay with the Bairds, Harry is infatuated. Caroline and the boys spend the long summer days exploring the bay and playing games. However, Harry is very protective of Caroline and jealous of the attention she receives from men (which is a lot). The idea of a great summer holiday is overshadowed by certain “accidents” in the old slaughterhouse and a general air of suspicion and distrust pervades.
Once we realise that Harry is an unreliable narrator the story shifts a gear and we start to view his account with some suspicion. The mysterious and dark atmosphere is further developed and you just know things aren’t going to end well as Harry’s paranoia builds and we begin to understand about “all the terrible happenings”.
Sydney Bridge Upside Down isn’t a light read but it is a most fulfilling one. Grab it if you can.