Bridge Kittinger-Harris has a giant emotional task ahead of her. She has to clear out her recently deceased mother’s home and deal with the estate. Trouble is, Bridge is still struggling with that mother-daughter relationship, one that was fairly fraught and erratic even toward the end. Luckily, she has a top-notch assistant, her best buddy Dom. Dom is a nonbinary, Puerto Rican atheist who is also a loving — and lovable — nuisance with a plastic label maker; exudes a canny dress sense for every occasion (“manual labour, but make it fashion,” they term their blue jumpsuit and Day-Glo sneakers outfit); and has a penchant for pineapple-shaped earrings. They also pack a handy bottle of medicinal-slash-restorative tequila for challenging tasks such as sorting through a dead parent’s home.
Armed only with a puzzling message from her mother, Jo, about “frozen assets,” Bridge charges into the cleaning-out process still grieving and unenlightened: “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a secret inheritance: gold bullion, a lost Dora Maar portrait, or, ya know, answers, closure? All the things left unsaid.” Instead, Bridge and Dom open Jo’s door to find that the house has been ransacked. In among the mess they discover a selection of interesting musical instruments — an mbira here, a sitar there — a key for a local storage locker, and, tucked away in a Tupperware of ratatouille, a hunk of something both distinctive and odd, “grayish yellow, bulbous, and striated, like a spindle wrapped in rotting elastic bands.” Bridge recognizes it as the hallucinogenic dreamworm: Jo, a neuroscientist by trade, in a bid to self-cure a recurring cancer, dabbled in what she believed to be journeys to alternate realities by using a highly orchestrated combination of music, visuals, and the dreamworm. During these “trips,” Jo sometimes included Bridge in the process, what Bridge thought of as “the magic game: Mom playing the music, and then the lights in big circles, and the colors, more and more of them, like double rainbows, and it feels like when you’re on the spinning shells at the amusement park, and there’s a really loud wind, and whoosh!”
With her therapist, Bridge has come to view her mother’s perceptions as delusions; Dom — ever practical, grounded, and skeptical — is more concerned that Jo was dosing her child with psychedelics. Bridge scoffs, but then points out that there’s only “‘[o]ne way to find out.’” And then, when she and Dom uncover a series of Jo’s notebooks and diaries, Bridge becomes determined to test out her mother’s theories for herself.
Author Lauren Beukes, who played with time travel spectacularly in 2013′s “The Shining Girls” and demonstrated her world-building prowess in 2020′s “Afterland,” is on authorial fire here, not merely because of the heart-stopping plot (this latest book is subtitled “A Novel of Suspense” for good reason). Some “Bridge” realities may be alternate, but they share familiarities: In one space, Facebook may be called Lifebook, but Britney, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and electric cars still abide; in others, Lizzo and COVID, for example, do not.
But it’s the plethora of engaging characters that adds real substance and immersive texture to this multilayered thriller. There’s a crafty musician named Caden Lyall who was helping Jo hone her zoetrope-pattered videos in order to refine her alternate-reality trips. There’s Tendayi, a Zimbabwean neuroparasitologist at Jo’s university, who catches Dom’s eye. (Their unfiltered flirtation during a discussion of parasites, fungi, and hallucinogens is downright hot.) And there’s Mina, an old friend of Jo’s, with her cigarettes-and-grappa-induced Eartha Kitt voice and stellar life advice: “You find the people that are like sunlight for you, kiddo,” she tells Bridge, “who make you bloom.” Among the myriad far-flung locations — including Haiti, Argentina, and the swamplands of Florida — there’s a terrific, jaw-dropping scene located in the grisly surrounds of the university’s Museum of Surgical History (perhaps, you suspect, for Beukes’s own delectation).
And, of course, there’s Dom, a wonderfully relentless force of nature, perpetually educating themselves. They want to be a comic-book artist — “They can see themselves doing a distinctive take on Dark Girl, that lawyer by day, crime-busting-sorceress by night” — but are currently setting their sights on an assistant position with an architect. They have one hell of an imagination, one that’s “[g]reat for drawing comics, terrible for being home alone at night,” and they see things clearly, albeit through a prism of stark humor, sparkling wit, and spot-on references to pop-culture pleasures like “Blade Runner,” “The Girl with All the Gifts,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and “Freaky Friday.”
Of course, as with any element or material that enables a consciousness-transference experience — an experience that can be just as easily used for nefarious reasons as for chasing emotional closure — there are others interested in the dreamworm. (Let’s just say you may never look at the name “Amber” and its various permutations in the same way again.) Into her bigger-picture narrative, Beukes has elegantly woven observations on late-stage capitalism as well as the horrors of systemic poverty, domestic abuse, racism, and war. “The world does change, slowly, and painfully, with a lot of resistance. Wouldn’t it be great if we could help it along?” observes Dom at one point.
That said, as this novel points out in Beukes’s characteristic style, be careful what you wish for.
BRIDGE: A Novel of Suspense
By Lauren Beukes
Mulholland, 432 pages, $29
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @daneetsteffens.