Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak

I love Markus Zusak’s writing. The Book Thief, of course, is excellent. But I also love the lesser known novel of his called The Messenger. He has a way of using as little description as possible to build his world and guide the reader along the narrative.

Warning: this book review will contain spoilers.

When I first delved into Bridge of Clay, I was lost for a few chapters. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. (It seems I wasn’t the only one.) It felt like Zusak was being too metaphorical and vague. My brain couldn’t construct a picture of the setting and characters – it just wasn’t given enough information. But, I did feel that the story and language was very significant. I was lulled by the language, and kept hooked.

I’m glad I kept going, because things became clearer as I got deeper and deeper in.

The book is narrated by Clay’s older brother Matthew. The structure is a bit unconventional. We start in the present, then are launched back into the past, and it chops and changes from there. Some chapters are about Clay and the family before their mother dies, while other chapters reach back even further to Penelope and Michael’s life. We’re flown about back and forth across decades, and while this is a bit jarring at first, you get used to the format.

I’ll tell you now, I teared up many times while reading Bridge of Clay. Many times. At home reading in bed, in public on the train… wherever I was reading. And this is a really great sign, because it proves that Zusak’s writing is incredibly powerful and moving.

The Dunbar boys’ life is a little hard to believe. There are 5 boys between the ages of (my guess) 12 to 20, living in the outer suburbs of Sydney without any adults. Their mother died from a ravaging cancer, and their father bailed on them shortly after. I can’t quite imagine 5 young boys being left to their own devices in Sydney without any kind of government or social services intervening, but sure. Perhaps they get away with it because the eldest boy is over 18 when it all goes down. But how they manage to pay for the mortgage/rent, plus school fees, plus utilities, plus food, plus medical expenses and the rest is a bit far-fetched for me.

The premise of the story is that the father Michael returns to the house and asks for help building a bridge. Random. But sure. While most of the brothers refuse – fair enough, um, they’re a bit cut from when you left them after their mum died, jerk! – the second eldest brother Clay agrees to go. He joins his dad out on a farm in whoop whoop (somewhere rural by the sounds of it) and they build a bridge with their bare hands. The project is both metaphorical and physical, allowing the father to connect with the family again.

What’s beautiful about this book is the treatment of brotherly love, encapsulated in the 5 Dunbar brothers, who fight and hurt and love each other to the extreme. There’s also a very tender, beautiful treatment of loss. The slow, dramatic demise of their mother Penelope, for me, was shocking and graphic and raw. It’s the main reason I often found tears sliding down my cheeks while reading. Romantic love also makes an appearance, in the form of Michael and Penelope’s incredibly sweet marriage, and Clay’s first romantic encounter with horse racing prodigy Carey. Erm, she dies. So that’s a shock to the system too, and makes you feel some real feels.

All in all, don’t expect to understand everything that’s happening from the get-go with Bridge of Clay, but hang in there and you’ll have your emotions seriously rattled – in a nice, refreshing way.

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