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Book review: ‘Bridge of Clay’

November 28, 2019 by Abigail Bostwick

An unforgettable and remarkable family saga, Markus Zusak’s “Bridge of Clay” is another moving and extraordinary novel. 

Zusak penned “The Book Thief” nearly a decade ago, a sweeping book of World War II in Germany. 

In “Bridge of Clay,” Zusak takes readers into the lives of the five teenage Dunbar brothers in Australia, all bringing each other up in a lawless home made of their own rules and whims as they struggle to learn the adult world in a world where their father abandoned them and their mother is dead. 

The narrator and eldest is Matthew, the most put-together of the brothers who does his best to run the feral household — which includes an unconventional pet watch donkey often in their living room and kitchen. Then there is Rory, Henry and Tommy. 

At the center is Clay, a boy who pieces together the mystery of their father’s disappearance and finds the center of their family’s life in what is left. 

Quiet Clay is the character to take the front-lead of the story, a central character who is both enigmatic and an unlikely hero. He is intelligent and fierce in his obsessions and passions. 

When the father of the Dunbars shows up again, he is welcome and resented. He is, in fact, dubbed “The Murderer” in the narrative — his worst crime killing the family when he abandoned them in their hardest hours. Their father has troubles, too, however. Since the death of his wife, he’s been living in the outbacks of Australia near a river. He asks his sons to build a bridge. Only Clay steps up to help him. 

The brothers see this aid as a betrayal — unforgivable and unspeakable. 

The bridge is both structure and metaphorical. It connects the broken family and also a link for their father to survive and move forward past the death he still grieves.

As in “The Book Thief,” Zusak’s writing in “Bridge of Clay” is powerful, conceptual, sharp and rings in the head as well as the heart. It is poetic and lyrical yet straight forward and a pierce to the heart and soul in its clarity. It will be another anticipated and difficult wait until Zusak’s next novel arrives — for me, one of my top-billing admired and followed authors. 

“She’d started leaving us that morning and death was moving in. He was perched on the curtain rod. Dangling in the sun. Later, he was leaning, close but casual, an arm draped over the fridge; if he was minding the beer he was doing a bloody good job.” 

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