Book review: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 Permalink

I probably should start this review by confessing that I haven’t read the much-lauded The Book Thief (regular readers of my reviews will know how I feel about historical fiction!).  I did see the movie however and yes, know it’s not the same thing, though it did give me a sense of the book’s themes.

I was happy to receive an advance copy of Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay, but it wasn’t until I read this interview with him the weekend before its release that I REALLY wanted to read this book which was 13 years in the making.

And I was most certainly not disappointed.

Book review: Bridge of Clay by Markus ZusakBridge of Clay
by Markus Zusak
Published by Picador Australia
on October 9th 2018
Source: PanMacmillan
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 176055992X, 9781760559922
Pages: 592

The Dunbar boys bring each other up in a house run by their own rules. A family of ramshackle tragedy - their mother is dead, their father has fled - they love and fight and learn to reckon with the adult world.

It is Clay, the quiet one, who will build a bridge; for his family, for his past, for his sins. He's building a bridge to transcend humanness. To survive.

A miracle and nothing less.

This is one of those reviews I worry won’t do the book justice. Usually I procrastinate over them for an inordinate amount of time but because I waited until just before publication date to read this book, I’ve got no time to dilly dally.

So… #longstoryshort: I loved this book and Zusak’s writing is stunning.

I recently went to a session at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Michelle de Kretser​ talked about her process of writing. She doesn’t get overwhelmed she explained, and she really doesn’t plot out her work methodically (I gather Zusak DOES do this). However… she said she focuses only on the sentence before her. And then the next.

Zusak’s words and sentences are crafted in such a way it’s almost as if meticulous thought has gone into each. And – from the interview I referred to earlier – perhaps it has. It certainly pays off. His writing never becomes lazy. His prose and phrasing precise and eloquent.

In reality, this could be seen as a ‘small’ book. (Not in size, cos it’s bloody long!) But in essence not a lot happens. Though at the same time, a lot happens – if that makes sense.

I know I tend to blather on about my preference for action scenes and the fact I skim-read until SOMETHING happens; however this isn’t a book that permits the skipping of words, sentences, paragraphs or details.

Everything is important. Every nuanced word. Every skerrick of information.

This is a story about the Dunbar boys. All five of them. But mostly one of them, Clay. Well, two because the eldest Matthew, is the one doing the telling and so it’s really his story as well.

But before the five Dunbar boys there was Penelope (Penny) a pianist and lover of Homer, whose father pushed her out of her old life in the Eastern Bloc (Poland, I think) towards a better one. And then there was Michael, the son of an independent woman who encouraged his passion for art… a passion rejected later when his heart was broken and a passion which was (inexplicably) secreted away.

And they are all part of this story as well because as Michael puts it… without Penny or Michael (and / or their respective stories) there would be no Dunbar boys, no Clay and no bridge.

This is most certainly a story of love and loss.

There’s death and loss. Both long and lingering and abrupt and unexpected.

There’s romantic love – Penny and Micheal and then the next generation – most particularly the brawny but sensitive Clay and Matthew.

And there’s a love that’s not often told or celebrated… the love between brothers. The Dunbar boys fight and bicker, they rib and they rile but they love each other fiercely.

It’s a mystery, even to me sometimes, how boys and brothers love. p 309

Most coincidentally (for me) there’s a strong focus on art and literature. Penny grew up with music and books and Michael with art and sculpture. Penny in particular passed her love of The Odyssey and The Iliad onto her sons. Michael’s love was hidden from all but Clay who Matthew explains sat willingly at the laps of his parents as they told their stories – though initially he explains, their stories were edited and ‘almost everythings’ and ‘most-of-truths’.

The bridge referenced in the title is not a metaphor…. well, it kinda is, but isn’t. The bridge itself does (or will) exist but it’s also one reuniting a broken family and I loved a quote delivered by our narrator, speaking of Clay and his relationship with their father:

The distance between us was him. p 329

Of course the bridge itself is inspired by the artists of centuries gone by and a shared fascination with Michelangelo Buonarroti and a story about his life (what I believe to be a fictional book cos I can’t find any reference to it), The Quarryman.

Everything he ever did was made not only of bronze or marble or paint, but of him… of everything inside him. p 126

There’s great detail, for example about Michelangelo and the statue of David in the Accademia Gallery in Florence WHICH I JUST BLOODY SAW A FEW WEEKS AGO, and I was easily taken back to our guide’s passionate rendering of the man (who was the boy) who fought Goliath.

Structurally the book’s very clever and Zusak jumps about in a way that’s pretty easy for we readers to follow. We start near the end and then leap back a bit. But our narrator Matthew, makes it clear that clear we need to settle in for what’s coming from his opening line:

In the beginning there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn’t the beginning, it’s before it….

I’ve touched briefly on the plot as it’s almost secondary. It isn’t obviously, because this whole book is the telling of a series of events throughout the lives of Penny, Michael and the Dunbar boys. Life changing moments. Pivotal moments… whether they knew that at the time or not.

Some of the moments Matthew (well, Zusak) shares with us are small. The boys’ games of monopoly. Their scrapping and the constant bickering between Rory and Henry. Matthew’s penchant for 80s movies inherited from his mother. And young Tommy’s odd collection of pets, all named after those in his mother’s books by Homer.

It’s those moments – the small ones between the big ones – that Zusak correctly identifies as being the ones that matter.

If I’m being picky the book is possibly missing a climax I would have liked, or perhaps rather…. a rearranging could put an important scene (involving a clothesline – long story!) closer to the end as – once we kinda knew the dire-ness or otherwise – of the situation (11 years on), it felt a bit anticlimactic. I’d be keen to hear what others think of that as I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just me… wanting a little more grunt at the end – to go out on a high.

Of course the cleverness of the storytelling, the beauty of the writing and the complexity of characters you can’t help but love negate any moans I have about the ending and this is possibly my favourite book of the year so far. (Currently vying with Chris Hammer’s Scrublands for the number one spot fin my affections!)

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak was published in Australia by Picador / Pan Macmillan and now available.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

* The pages of my quotes are from the uncorrected proof, so may have changed before final printing.


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