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Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Article by Dymphna Nugent ©.
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‘In the beginning there was one murderer, one mule and one boy.’

Following the death of their mother and the withdrawal of their father from their lives, the five Dunbar boys grow up. Shaped by grief and the almost feral backdrop of the Sydney suburbs, they forge their path through school, work and betting slips. The lack of any parental guidance meant that number 18 Archer Street was a hive of chaos and savagery, with stray animals in the kitchen and stray boys on the roof. As with The Book Thief, Markus Zusak allows death to tighten it’s grip around the characters, forcing them to grow toward the sun, misshapen and determined. Death is a common theme in Bridge of Clay, affecting all of the Dunbar boys but especially Clay, boy number four. Clay runs dangerously, tortuously and in training for a day when he will need that speed. In him runs a river where he absorbs stories, secrets, histories and the fragile memory of his mother Penny, The Mistake Maker.

Zusak’s writing style is challenging for the reader. He alternates between various timelines, jumps through streams of consciousness and from time to time, interjects with poetic prose. Gradually however, the narratives blend and a solid picture emerges of a broken family, healed with the physical building of a bridge and the strange but somehow perfect presence of a mule. The death of a parent at any age threatens the glue and supporting beams of your home. The death of Penny Dunbar, in a home where her boys needed her was catastrophic; one day the light didn’t shine anymore and the piano lay still, her music silenced.

Written from the perspective of the eldest Dunbar boy Matthew, the narrative leaves many questions unaddressed which may eventually irritate the reader. It is unclear where the finances to run this house come from and when the focus returns to Matthew at the end, it is unclear why. The narrative is strong and at many points in the novel, I was aware that I was reading something quite special, however again and again I was left unsatisfied with a lack of information and that feeling of a special piece of work, was diluted somewhat. The title itself refers literally and metaphorically to a bridge which Clay is building. The bridge plays a pivotal role in glueing this family back together again, with each arch, the support grows around each Dunbar boy. Clay builds for a storm which is brewing and the local river is generally expected to burst the banks. The dam in Clay never breaks and we are never rewarded for our patience regarding his training and running. The result is anti-climactic and the need for a physical bridge is not proven or justified to the reader, resulting in a deflated feeling after so much suggestion and tension.

‘A Dunbar boy could do many things, but he should always be sure to come home’. These are however but small criticisms because ultimately, this was a beautiful book. In it I experienced loss, grief, love and so much warmth in spite of so much death. This was almost ten years in the making and Markus Zusak has spun a masterpiece which reminds us that first and foremost, a family is strongest together and that home will always wait for you to return.

(c) Dymphna Nugent

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