A review of Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Bridge of Clay
By Markus Zusak
Picador Australia
ISBN: 9781760559922, Trade Paperback, 9 October 2018, 592 pages, aud $32.99

My advanced reading copy of Bridge of Clay has a black cover that says, in large letters, “The Most Anticipated Book of the Decade”.  That’s a big statement, though I can’t deny that, after the delight of The Book Thief, I, like many of Zusak’s fans, was certainly anticipating his next book. I imagine it must have been difficult for Zusak to work under such a heavy shadow, but Bridge of Clay is no disappointment. As is always the case in every Zusak novel, the narration is complex, shifting and unhinging the reader by playing with notions of time, and changing the spotlight and the points of nostalgic engagement.  The story is ostensibly about the five brothers of the Dunbar family, whose mother dies of Cancer and whose dad leaves them shortly afterwards. It isn’t easy but the boys manage to grow up, acquiring a variety of animals and bruises both literal and metaphoric as they try to get by without adults. Clay is the fourth brother, and the story pivots around him and the pact he makes with his father to build a bridge.

Of course that plot summary is a vast simplication. Bridge of Clay is a beautiful, complex book full of subtlety, metaphor, and human connection. It’s a story of many things, not just a child’s attempt to document the loss and redemption of his family, though that is the driving plot line. It’s also about the nature and power of language and to that extent there is a meta-fictional quality to the work. The first person narrative with its courier font openings addresses the reader directly, asking us to participate in the story making: “I’m sure you’ve met certain people in this world and heard their stories of lucklessness, and you wonder what they did to deserve it.” (67)  It brings in almost absurd referents into a domestic Sydney suburban landscape, from the ever-present presence of Michelangelo viz a fictionalised book titled The Quarryman passed on in a roundabout way from father to son, to Homer’s Odyssey which underscores many of the names in the book including Penelope, the Dunbar matriarch, and an oddly lucid mule named Achilles. Though Penny is already a ghost in the present tense of the book, it is her luminous strength that holds the boys together, even in death:

The fact of Penny Dunbar, though, as we know, is that she might have been slight, and perennially fragile, but she was an expert at somehow surviving. (251)

There are also the nicknames which seem so intimate – “The Mistake Maker”, “The Murderer”, that create an instant affinity between the reader and characters.  The story is not quite magic realism. Nothing specifically supernatural happens in the story, but amidst the tragedy there is a kind of inherent magic in naming things, including the many nicknames bestowed on Penny, “The Mistake Maker” and Michael “The Murderer”. Throughout the story, there are multiple realities happening at once – inner and outer. It is  art – painting, music, and literature – that creates a magic bridge which connects time and place. As the multiple stories shift between present and past; between the moment of love and the transition to its loss, a circularity begins to form, almost as if these events were happening concurrently rather than in a linear progression and if some kind of immortality were possible through the artistic rendering:

There was a teeming noise of insects, electric and erudite. A whole language in a single note. Effortless. (146)

Art is one of the many bridges in this book. There is also, of course, the actual bridge that Clay agrees to build with his father. It is a real bridge connecting Michael Dunbar’s rural place with the rest of the city – made of stone, and constructed from almost nothing – hard work and pain – but it’s also a bridge to re-connect Michael Dunbar with his estranged boys, and to reconnect the grief-stricken Michael and Clay, with life.

Zusak’s writing is consistently beautiful, condensed and poetic, particularly when he’s illuminating a character:

And it was, it was perfectly fitting, too, another blistering February evening; the day had cooked the concrete, the sun still high, and aching.  Itw as heat to be held and depended on, or, really, had hold of him. In the history of all murderes everywhere, this was surely the most pathetic:

At five-foot-ten, he was average height.

At seventy-five kilos, a normal weight.

But make no mistake—he was a wasteland in a suit; he was bent-postured, he was broken. He leaned at the air as if waiting for it to finish him off, only it wouldn’t, not today, for this, fairly suddenly, didn’t feel like a time for murderers to be getting favours. (13)

Zusak’s characters all have a broken charm about them. The narrator, Matthew Dunbar,  provides the anchor that drives the story, written on his grandmother’s typewriter (the “TW”) dug up, both literally and metaphorically, from his father’s childhood home.  Matthew is both harsh and soft – and his deep love for his brother Clay and both of his parents creates a story that is deeply moving. The ultimate bridge in this book is the one between imagination and reality.  The act of creative composition – whether that be music, painting, sculpting, handmaking a bridge, or writing down the story of a family, is itself a kind of magic. Bridge of Clay reads quickly, but when the book is finished, it feels like a lifetime has passed. This is a beautiful, tender and tear-jerking story of love, loss, creativity, exile and coming home.  Zusak fans will not be disappointed.