Bridge of Clay by Mark Zusak – book reviewby Sally Blundell
A saga about a family of boys living on their own terms is full of violence, pain, love and compassion.
When we meet the five Dunbar boys they are living in the racing quarter in an outlying suburb of Sydney. Their mother is dead, their father has disappeared. They live a hardscrabble life in an old rundown villa, a place of arguments, fights, 1980s movies, wayward pets and a piano that is determinedly never played.
The narrator is eldest boy Matthew, a passive observer recording the story of his parents and four brothers: Rory, Henry, Clayton and Thomas. But it is Clay, son number four, whose story drives events. As Matthew tells us, “Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him.”
Through Matthew’s own recollections, and in his retelling of Clay’s accounts, we learn about their mother, Penelope, crying all the way to Vienna after being sneaked out of Stalinist Poland by her loving father. We also learn about the boys’ artist father, Michael Dunbar, whose heart is crushed by his first love, Abbey.
The tale of these two refugees – one political, one emotional, both bruised – is told through a cabinet of things: an old Remington typewriter buried in the backyard of “an old-backyard-of-a-town”, a piano with PLEASE MARRY ME written across the keys, an engraved lighter, a peg, and a mattress on an old practice racetrack called the Surrounds. And books: The World’s Best Bridges, The Quarrymen (about Michelangelo), Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with their heroic cast of fast-running Achilles, resourceful Odysseus and Agamemnon “King of Men”. In knockabout suburban Australia, Zusak presents their modern-day domestic counterparts: Hector the cat, Agamemnon the goldfish, Achilles the mule, “his body a dug-up farmland”. A dull-witted teenage chorus – Chugs, Leper, Trout, Spook and Crapps – is a motley backdrop to the small-town cast of characters: the “Mistake Maker” (Penny), “warm-armed Claudia Kirkby” (the school teacher), “clear-eyed Carey Novac” (Clay’s girlfriend) and “the Murderer”, their bent-postured and broken runaway father, a “wasteland in a suit”.
Zusak feeds out their story with infinite patience, jumping through time to slowly reveal the backstory that explains the fighting (the violence meted out to Clay as part of his “training” remains difficult to understand), the anger, the disappearance of Michael and the significance of the mattress, the peg, the bridge and the radio permanently tuned to the “racing game”.
As in The Book Thief, this novel is driven by young people acting largely in isolation. In Zusak’s books, violence is an unquestioned part of life – in The Book Thief, young Max dreams of boxing Hitler, in Fighting Ruben Wolfe, brothers Cameron and Ruben are involved in an organised boxing racket. And like that book, Bridge of Clay is pitched as a young-adult novel but is deserving of a much broader readership. “It’s a mystery,” writes Matthew, “even to me sometimes, how boys and brothers love.” In chipping away at that mystery, we find everyone has a story of love and loss buried beneath their tough demeanour. Over the full 570 pages, Zusak builds an epic tale of love, pain, guilt and atonement amidst the dust and dumb violence of semi-rural Australia.
BRIDGE OF CLAY, by Markus Zusak (Picador, $38)
This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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