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Bridge of Clay


Bridge of Clay

- Click here to read Review #2 by Ellie Tiemens.

Review #1 by Anushka Giri

What do you do when you break into the home of the family you abandoned years ago, and standing right there in the kitchen is an attitudinal mule named Achilles? Well, you wash the dirty dishes piled high in the sink, of course, and wait for retribution.

So begins Markus Zusak’s BRIDGE OF CLAY, named for the fourth of five Dunbar boys, a rough-and-tumble crew who spends their time together beating the snot out of each other, cursing up a storm and watching '80s movies while surrounded by their strange menagerie of pets. There’s Matthew, the eldest, the blunt, responsible one. There’s the unruly Rory, with a penchant for drunkenly stealing mailboxes. There’s Henry, the charming, money-minded one. There’s Clay, the quiet one, a hoarder of stories. And then there’s the oh-so-lovable Tommy, who brings home a pet every chance he gets, and carefully selects the perfect name from Greek mythology (hence the mule Achilles). The story is about all of them, but it’s especially about Clay.

"[BRIDGE OF CLAY] is a tale fraught with trauma, sorrow, guilt and regret, but always interlaced with bold strips of love, joy and rambunctiousness, a story that is universal in feeling, if not in the specifics."

Clay is set apart from the other Dunbar boys --- he’s reticent, a smiler but not a laugher, and constantly training, running around glass-strewn tracks and up and down the streets of a city that is small and familiar yet also infinitely sprawling. What is he brutally, relentlessly training for? And how is this mystery entwined with the return of the Dunbar boys’ dad, who vanished without a trace long ago?

Though ostensibly about the eponymous Clay, BRIDGE OF CLAY is told from the perspective of Matthew, the eldest of the boys and their guardian since their mother passed away and their father abandoned them. He tells the story from a distant point in the future, one in which he is married with children, and the fate of Clay is temporarily unknown to the reader. It is a difficult book to describe, in all its complexity --- it flicks back and forth in time, tracing the histories of each character in loving detail. It reminds me of a project I had to do once in art class, loosely weaving plastic thread. I am not sure what the heck I was doing, but in the end, when I was told to pull the ends of the strings --- tight, tight, tight --- the threads all neatly came together to make sense, to create a whole.

I admittedly approached the story with ridiculously high expectations. How could I not, when this was Markus Zusak, author of the beloved THE BOOK THIEF? It was impossible not to set myself up for failure when, 10 years prior, I had been swept up in the story of a little girl named Liesel, and had been unable to put that book down until the tears drowning my eyes had forced me to.

I won’t sugarcoat it: BRIDGE OF CLAY drove me nuts for the first 200 pages. I couldn’t follow the leaps in time or keep track of the characters. I started over four times, frustrated with my inability to understand everything that was going on. But I was determined to see it through, because I could see Zusak flinging those breadcrumbs over his shoulder, and I’d be darned if I didn’t follow him to the end, to see where it all led. It was my fifth time staring at the now-familiar words on the first page before I got my act together, set my expectations aside and made a pact with myself to carry on, even if I didn’t immediately fall into the story.

It was then that I was able to make it through, to appreciate the book for what it is, and what it isn’t (i.e. round two of the reading experience I had with THE BOOK THIEF). What it IS is the tale of a boy who builds a bridge, the bridge being a metaphor for the stories that make up each and every one of us, stretching forward but also backward, reconciling the past with the future.

While I think that younger readers who enjoyed THE BOOK THIEF would be tempted to pick up BRIDGE OF CLAY, which is ostensibly about a teenage boy, I would recommend this book to a more mature reader, one with a wider range of life experiences, who can better discern the emotional complexity that comes across through Zusak’s typical charmingly whimsical tone. Though I am not convinced that the story warrants the oftentimes muddled 500-plus pages it encompasses, it is clear in the blurred but palpable edges of a decade’s worth of innumerable rewrites that this was a labor of love, a story struggling to escape its writer. It is a tale fraught with trauma, sorrow, guilt and regret, but always interlaced with bold strips of love, joy and rambunctiousness, a story that is universal in feeling, if not in the specifics.  

Review #2 by Ellie Tiemens

Ten years ago, Markus Zusak stunned the world with his brilliantly crafted novel THE BOOK THIEF. Readers worldwide have since fallen in love with his other works such as I AM THE MESSENGER and FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE. But this year, readers get another delightful taste of Zusak’s writing in his newest novel, BRIDGE OF CLAY.

The Dunbar boys --- all five of them --- live an unexpected life. Their mother a piano-playing refuge and their father a heartbroken artist, the five brothers grew up in a home of love, laughter and grief. Following their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, the boys learn to cope with a new life of just each other and their five pets, including a mule named Achilles. Each boy struggles in their own way to come into adulthood and the struggles it brings. The second from youngest boy, Clay, decides that he wants to build a bridge. And he cannot do it without their father.       So, Clay finds his father and begins to build a bridge that will come to represent the reconstruction of their once complete and happy family.

BRIDGE OF CLAY weaves together a multigenerational tale of the lives of the brothers and their parents, Penny and Michael. Though the novel jumps between points in Penny’s penniless and piano-filled childhood, Michael’s mysterious past, and the current lives of the Dunbar brothers, it creates a cohesive story of a family that is simultaneously alike and completely different than your typical clan of relatives.

It is no surprise that Markus Zusak can write such a complex story of overlapping timelines and histories in such a cohesive way. Told from both first and third points of view, BRIDGE OF CLAY is a unique response to the way that families deal with everyday life and also unusual successes and trials. Each sentences Zusak writes is carefully crafted in a poetic and brilliant way that makes readers feel like part of the Dunbar family.

Each character in this novel, from the five brothers to their parents, grandparents, love interests and even pets, has a distinct and intriguing voice. The characters all struggle with everyday problems such as bickering with brothers and also more rare circumstances like the death of a loved one. But in the midst of the tragedies, Zusak doesn’t downplay the little things in the lives of a family. He puts a spotlight on the way that different personalities collide and conflict in a family; he paints a portrait of the mundane in a way Michelangelo would admire. Zusak convinces readers to love the Dunbar family and all they have to offer. He makes their story seem like real life. Zusak is a masterful crafter of the story of life. Time and time again he proves that any and every part of life is a story worth telling.

Fans of novels like THE BOOK THIEF, I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN, and TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE and television shows like “This is Us” and “Parenthood” that tell the stories of the complexities of families will fall in love with BRIDGE OF CLAY and the way that Zusak writes.

Reviewed by Anushka Giri and Ellie Tiemens on October 12, 2018

Bridge of Clay
by Markus Zusak

  • Publication Date: October 9, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 1984830155
  • ISBN-13: 9781984830159