Published: February 2015
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is considered to be one of the greatest architectural achievements of the 20th Century; it’s an iconic image, instantly recognisable, and labelled as the most beautiful and most photographed bridge in the world. It’s also the world’s second most-popular suicide spot and almost a character in itself in Nicci Cloke’s second novel, Lay Me Down.
When Elsa uproots her life in London to move to California with her dual-citizenship boyfriend Jack, it’s the bridge that drew them there. It’s Jack’s dream job to work on the bridge as an ironworker, and it’s what happens on the bridge that becomes the catalyst for the unravelling of their new and fragile relationship.
Lay Me Down was inspired by an article on the ironworkers of the Golden Gate Bridge – the everyday, ordinary, blue collar workers who volunteer to be on call to rescue the would-be jumpers from themselves and their impulsive decision to jump off the bridge and end their lives.
In his new role as ironworker, Jack is also signed up to be one of these rescuers, but talking back men and women attempting to leap from the bridge proves to be his own undoing as the jumpers bring back memories Jack thought he’d left behind. The more Jack is wrapped up in his own past, the more time it leaves Elsa, an English girl alone in California on a tourist visa, to take her own trip down memory lane.
From its subject matter alone, you can tell that this novel is an emotionally powerful, highly charged story. The way Cloke takes you in and out of the past to reveal Jack and Elsa’s story in snippets does a fantastic job of living up to these expectations. I’m not the biggest fan of flashbacks in narratives but Lay Me Down used them fleetingly, teasing out the history in small doses before returning back to focus on Elsa, Jack and the main storyline.
Character-wise, while both Elsa and Jack are completely fleshed out and real, it’s Jack who you want to know more about. From his unusual job in its extraordinary location and the life-or-death implications it brings, Jack’s story becomes the driving force of the narrative. Which, by the way, is gorgeously lyrical. It took some getting used to, but the text incorporates snippets of thoughts and conversation as the characters experience them, and it’s both jarring and entirely credible at the same time.
My one gripe with this book is the scores of unanswered questions. I can accept an ambiguous ending, and I don’t always need a happily ever after to get me through the end of the story, but Lay Me Down just left one too many things unexplained when you got to the final page. The ending in particular was especially uncertain of itself, building up to a moment which genuinely shocked me so much I had to re-read the page to check I hadn’t missed something, before essentially retracting it and choosing a safer option.
Nevertheless, Lay Me Down was a fascinating story with an intriguing premise, and a method of storytelling that fit the subject matter perfectly. Perhaps the best summary of the novel, however, are the lyrics of the Journey song that informs the text and reappears as the story unfolds, underlining the experiences of Jack and Elsa as their life and relationship in San Francisco begins to unravel:
When the lights go down in the city, and the sun shines on the bay, do I want to be there in my city?