Brother Juniper’s Inquisition

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Sometimes, confessing to a favourite book can bring a flush of embarrassment to the cheeks. We tend to make such selections at a susceptible age and they don’t necessarily stand up to the test of time. ‘Isn’t that a bit . . . well . . . teenaged?’ some inquirer will ask with a shrivelling look.

I am only too aware of this snooty equivalent of the lifted lorgnette as I admit to a long-standing love of Thornton Wilder’s little slip of a book: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Wilder, born in small-town America at the turn of the last century, remained popular until the Sixties. But then he fell out of fashion, and the 1927 novel which made his name as a writer and won him the first of three Pulitzer prizes is all too often dismissed as a piece of mannered sentimentality. Even the author’s biographer, Gilbert A. Harrison, who lingers for page after page on the complex and prodigiously erudite character of his subject – a prolific author who served in both world wars, smoked and drank far too much, talked inexhaustibly, mixed in glittering circles and nurtured an almost illimitable range of enthusiasms – skims over this early publication. For any lingering fans, its fate was pretty much sealed when Tony Blair chose to quote from it in a service to commemorate the lives that were lost in the World Trade Center attack.

I looked it out, yet again, at that time. As I opened my little Penguin paperback, a last tatty legacy of a gap year spent in Peru, I determined to feel sceptical. Surely I would have outgrown it? Surely
I wasn’t going to fall prey to this purveyor of quotes to a grandstanding politician?

It’s obvious why Mr Blair alighted on this book. Taking a real historical event as its starting-point, the story opens at a moment of unforeseen disaster. It is noon on Friday, 20 July 1714, and a bridge – a ladder of thin slats slung over a gorge in the Peruvian Andes – suddenly breaks, flinging to their deaths the five trave

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About the contributor

Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the art and poetry critic for The Times.

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