“In front of me, there’s the old TW. Beyond it, a scratchy wooden tableland. There are mismatched salt and pepper shakers, and a company of stubborn toast crumbs. The light from the hall is yellow, the light in here is white. I sit and think and hit here. I punch and punch away. Writing is always difficult, but easier with something to say: Let me tell you about our brother. The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay. Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him.”
For fans of Markus Zusak’s remarkable The Book Thief, it has been a long wait for his newest novel, Bridge of Clay. In fact, Bridge of Clay represents an idea that has been 20 years in the making. That Zusak has spent so long working on the novel is a testament to his determination, as well as his faith that Bridge of Clay is a story worth telling. I love Zusak’s writing for its succinct distillation of the human experience and have been waiting for this release with patient anticipation. While I didn’t know what to expect – particularly as a follow-up to the unexpected global success of The Book Thief – I was prepared to assume that Zusak’s narrative skill would turn any plot into a revelation. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Although Bridge of Clay has flaws – an inevitability with a work that has taken so long to come to fruition – they feel incidental to a work that is so replete with vulnerability. It is easily one of the most humanistic novels that I’ve read this year – a raw account of the trauma that can accompany both loss and reconciliation.
Bridge of Clay follows the story of the five Dunbar brothers, living an almost feral existence following the death of their mother and abandonment by their father. Their life together is tribal: full of boyish violence, understated love for one another, and a fierce preservation of their mother’s memory. This status quo exists until the return of their absent father – dubbed ‘the Murderer’ for his decision to leave his young sons to their fate – asking for help in building an old-style bridge across a river by his house. Clay, the fourth of the five brothers, is the only one to agree. In an act viewed as betrayal, Clay leaves school and moves out to his father’s house to assist with the bridge-building process. Of course, the bridge is as much symbolic as it is real. The narrative’s non-chronological structure unpicks the history of Clay’s parents – including the life and death of his immigrant mother, Penelope – alongside Matthew’s real-time reflections. At the heart of all of this is Clay, the bridge-builder whose love for stories allows him to rebuild a family shattered by tragedy.
“There, out there, was a mistake maker, and a distant statue of Stalin. There was a birthday girl rolling a piano. There was the heart of color in all that grey, and floating paper houses. All of it came through the city, across The Surrounds and Bernborough. It rose in the streets, and when finally Clay left, there was light and gathering floodwater. First it reached his ankles, then his knees, until, by the time he made the corner, it was up to the height of his waist. And Clay looked back, one last time, before diving – in, and outwards – to a bridge, through a past, to a father. He swam the gold-lit water.”
This is a story about family and the narratives that underlie them. The idea of personal history forms such a central part of the plot and the novel’s structure. The chronology of Bridge of Clay drifts around, from the story of Penelope – the Dunbar’s mother – to the history of Michael – their father – to Matthew’s present-day writing of the narrative, to the eleven years earlier that Clay left school to help ‘the Murderer’ build his bridge. It is an expansive story and, admittedly, the elliptical nature of the various revelations and histories can be a little tough to follow in places. However, this is something that Zusak pursued consciously: “You have to do a bit more work but I think the rewards are greater, too” (Entertainment Weekly). For me, the payoff is most definitely worth the patience required as the various narrative threads come together.
This isn’t a novel driven by action. It moves slowly, but purposefully, as it untangles the web of grief that has so clearly ensnared the Dunbar family. While the chapters that detail Penelope’s drawn-out death from cancer are desperately emotive, it is the myriad ways in which the Dunbar boys have been clearly impacted by the loss that are the most emotionally evocative. From their collection of pets – all named after Greek heroes, as per Penelope’s love of The Iliad and The Odyssey – to Clay’s torturous and seemly meaningless physical training routine, the boys have been destroyed. As Matthew himself reflects on the night of his father’s abandonment: “There were five of us in that house then. We dreamed in our rooms and slept. We were boys but also miraculous; We lay there, living and breathing – For that was the night he’d killed us. He’d murdered us all in our beds.” Moments such as this are as frequent as they are beautiful. Zusak does not rely on elaborate or lengthy prose to generate moments of power. It is his unique ability to conjure the most emotionally intense moments from relatively short, declarative sentences that makes his narrative mastery all the more remarkable. His decision to tell the story through Matthew’s words – perhaps the most hardened of the brothers – really serves to extend the understated elegance of Zusak’s literary style.
“Early on, our father was called to the schools, and he was the perfect post-war charlatan: well-dressed, clean-shaven. In control. We’re coping, he’d said, and principals nodded, teachers were fooled; they could never quite see the abyss in him. It was hidden beneath his clothes. He wasn’t like so many men, who set themselves free with drink, or outbursts or abuse. No, for him it was easier to withdraw; he was there but never there. He sat in the empty garage, with a glass he never drank from. We called him in for dinner, and even Houdini would have been impressed. It was a slow and steady vanishing act. He left us like that, in increments.”
The grief that transcends this novel is palpable. Although death does not haunt this novel as visibly as with The Book Thief, it is there nonetheless. There are moments of such raw potency, it is almost hard to read on. The loud, direct strength of Penelope – a woman who has endured and lost so much – juxtaposed with Michael’s quiet resignation and desperate sadness are tangibly painful. Yet, the healing capacity of stories and the understanding that they bring offers a hope that tempers the novel’s hardest moments. As Zusak explained in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly: “We’re all made up of so many things. We’re made up of stories – not only the stories of our lives, but the stories of lives that came before our lives. Clay builds the bridge and it’s made of him, but so much of him is made of his mother’s and father’s stories.” As Clay, through Matthew’s narration, weaves the stories of his families together, he creates a history that mirrors the expansiveness of the Greek legends that Penelope so loved.
Bridge of Clay has certainly assumed a place as one of my favourite novels of 2018. While it does perhaps suffer from one too many narrative threads, it offers one of the most fully-realised and authentic depictions of familial love and shared tragedy that I’ve yet to encounter. I must, however, admit my consternation that Zusak’s US publishers have decided to market the books as Young Adult (as the only country to do so). Although I certainly recognise – and hope for – this novel’s ability to engage diverse audiences, I am concerned that the relatively slow burn, as well as the work required of the readers, will make this an unattractive prospect for most teenagers. There is also a very real risk that many adults will breeze past it – displayed alongside other YA fiction – and miss what is truly an incredibly poignant and beautiful read. I certainly hope that anyone who has loved Zusak’s previous works will not miss the opportunity to relish in the potent skill with which the author has weaved another truly unique exploration of what it means to love and grieve.