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Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak (review)

The first Markus Zusak book I read was The Book Thief. It was the summer of 2007 and my sister had picked up this book for our annual summer reads (we always had a bookstore trip with our dad just after school let out for the holidays). I read it partly in the south of France and partly in Bern and I’ll never forget the feeling of reading it for the first time. It was magical, emotional, and the best kind of overwhelming. Many years later, I read his Underdog trilogy and I Am The Messenger, and enjoyed them too, even though they were very different books and very different experiences to The Book Thief.

So, I definitely went into Bridge of Clay with a certain amount of expectations, but also wary since there was the additional weight of the twenty odd years he had spent writing it.

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There are five Dunbar boys.

“Many considered us tearaways. Barbarians. We swore like bastards, fought like contenders, and punished each other.”

Matthew, the oldest, is the narrator of the story. Clay, the enigmatic fourth brother, is the main focus. They lost their mother Penelope (“Penny”), an immigrant from eastern Europe, to a long-drawn battle with cancer and their father deserted them to go live in the middle of nowhere. They live in the suburbs of Sydney in the house they grew up in, with the youngest brother’s varied menagerie of strays, including a mule named Achilles, a budgie named Telemachus, and a cat named Hector (the Homer references are a throwback to their maternal grandfather and form an important thematic link throughout the story).

“A family of ramshackle tragedy. A comic book kapow of boys and blood and beasts.”

Now, their father is back, wanting help on a bridge he is building. Clay agrees, breaking every single brotherly rule they have lived with between their father’s initial desertion and now.

“Clay was warming up. Truth be told, Clay was always warming up … It bears mentioning that what our brother was training for was as much a mystery to him as it was to us. He only knew he was working and waiting for the day he’d find out.”

One of the things I have always loved about MZ’s writing is his ability to build interesting characters. Another is the way he can connect seemingly unconnected events and find themes that transcend their specificity. Both are evident here in their full glory. He’s done a great job crafting these characters and he writes poetically and convincingly about brothers, family, loss and redemption. About joy and chaos and messy lives and emotions.

“Clay can be molded into anything, but it needs fire to set it.”

This is a story full of metaphors and seeming digressions (my favourite was the Michaelangelo thread) that come together to form a sprawling family saga across time, space and generations. But at its heart, this is a mainly a story about a boy named Clay who wants to build a bridge.

“He builds a bridge to make something perfect – to be better than human, for just a moment. He builds it for his brothers, I think, but also for himself – for a miracle and nothing less.” 

I love the way MZ wields language. There is, though, a line that is easily crossed into the overwrought territory. The Bridge of Clay does both. There are some elegant turns of phrase, some gorgeous imagery, some breathtaking, visceral moments.

“In our case, in the front, through the gaps, you could see their handheld hands.

It was Penelope’s fragile, piano-playing hand.

Our father’s powdery work hand.

And a scrum of boys around them, of elbows, arms, and legs.”

But, the beauty of such writing is being allowed to stand, with enough space around here. Here, in over 600+ pages, it is somewhat ruined by much of the rest of it, which comes across as too much, trying too hard, elaborating when letting a description or a sentiment speak for itself is more than enough.

Then, the timeline and geography appears to be vague on purpose. Which would have been okay in another book, but, with so much back and forth between characters and their stories, it makes it even harder to place oneself in time and location.

As for the narrative timeline itself, its non-linearity seems to exists mainly as a narrative device – to help MZ delay the reveal of crucial information and prolong the story. In my opinion, it hinders the story, draws the reader’s attention away instead of engaging it, and leads to this uneven pace that I found jarring (very often, I found myself rushing through certain parts to get to the more interesting threads, such as Penny’s entire story). It also, disappointingly, means that certain crucial moments lack the poignancy they would have had if the back-story had been known earlier and the reader, along with the characters, had been given more time to digest it.

This is a pity because there are many intricate bits that go into building this ambitious family saga, and I’d have expected more emotional resonance than what I actually felt.

In the end, nothing still tops The Book Thief for me, but I could appreciate and love parts of Bridge of Clay enough for it to not be an overall disappointment.


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