Bridge by Lauren Beukes
A quick glance at the jacket copy of Lauren Beukes’s 2023 weird thriller Bridge might make the reader think of the Best Picture winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once. After all, this is a mother-daughter story set in the multiverse. Beukes weaves into her story a few elements EEAAO didn’t have, like a parasite and a serial killer, or more accurately a collective of serial killers. The core of the book is a mother-daughter story, but it is filled with chills, secrets, action sequences and nail-biting, edge-of-your-chair suspense.
Bridget Harris-Kittinger, who goes by Bridge, has come to Portland, Oregon, to clean out her mother’s house. Her mother Jo, a brilliant and deeply troubled neuroscientist, died of brain cancer only a few days before. Bridge struggles with grief, guilt and deep sense of unfinished business — her mother wanted to tell her something, but when Bridge visited her in the hospital, Jo didn’t even recognize her, and the words “I don’t know who this is. Get her away from me,” echo in Bridge’s psyche. Fortunately, Bridge’s non-binary friend, the tough, loyal Dom, is at her side to help out.
Immediately, they spot trouble. The house has been broken into and ransacked, although nothing of value was taken. Then, while Dom is cleaning out the rotting refrigerator, they discover something strange (and gross) hidden in a frozen ratatouille, and Bridge recognizes “the dreamworm,” from her childhood.
The dreamworm is more than a drug. It opens doors to other realities, and other versions of yourself. Bridge remembers this, vaguely, from her early childhood, and the possibility that her mother — her mother — might have leapt into another version of herself and still be alive is too powerful for Bridge to resist. She makes a dangerous choice.
Bridge doesn’t have all the facts, though, and she has no idea the danger she is in or the risk she is bringing to other versions of herself. A cadre of serial killers, who have experienced the dreamworm and wish to exterminate it, work across realities to kill the people who experience it — and one of them is in Bridge’s reality. Bridge and Dom must also contend with Caden, a musician who Jo trusted with the secret, and who has his own agenda. Bridge, desperate to find her mother, is impulsive and trusting, and it’s up to Dom to be an anchor and a shield as the story progresses. Dom is just as lost in this weird science as Bridge and Caden are, and the only difference is that Dom acknowledges it.
Of course the tradeoff for using the dreamworm turns out to be horrifying, but by then, Bridge is pretty deep in, and Amber, her reality’s killer, is on her scent. The tension ratchets up across realities, leavened with the acerbic wit of Dom as they fight to help their friend.
The dreamworm is wonderfully creepy and tantalizing, the concrete descriptions of the different realities and the POV shifts as Bridge trades places with other Bridgets is compelling and convincing. Beukes did a stellar job of letting us know, in small ways, that Bridge’s home reality isn’t ours — there are different popstars and a video social media site called YouVid, not YouTube. Later we find out about political and historical differences. For instance, Bridge visits a reality where millions of people died from Covid because the federal government totally bungled any response — oh, wait. However, the various realities, while fascinating, aren’t the heart of the story. The troubled Jo and her tangled relationship with her daughter is, and this plays out in a way that is emotionally satisfying while confronting truth head-on. The morality of some of Jo’s actions is questionable (to be polite), and Beukes doesn’t handwave away what Jo did, to herself, to her daughter and to others.
Amber is completely understandable, and more terrifying because of it. If I have one quibble with the book, it is in Amber’s origin story. She lost a friend to the dreamworm because of the actions of someone called The Dictator, in another reality. I kept expecting the Dictator to play a larger role in the book (probably solely because of his title), but he is truly confined to Amber’s genesis as a serial killer.
In many ways a dark book, Bridge is leavened by the depiction of love between mother and daughter, the power of friendship, and the sparkling banter between Dom and Bridge. The story is deeply creepy, and completely satisfying.