Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

By Ekta R. Garg

December 19, 2018

Genre: YA literary fiction

Release date: October 9, 2018

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A family of brothers must decide how to respond to the father who deserted them when he comes home. As the boys grapple with why their father left in the first place, one of them will find a way to close the gap between everyone. Author Markus Zusak returns to the book world after more than a decade with the heartfelt but somewhat faulty novel Bridge of Clay.

Matthew Dunbar knows he must set the record straight for everyone. He’s committed to it, no matter what people—including his four brothers—may think. As the oldest boy in the family, he’s had the longest time with his parents and the most life experience to inform the Dunbar story, which boils down to one thing: at the time when they needed him most, Michael Dunbar left his boys to fend for themselves.

Their shock almost reverberates off the walls, then, when Michael comes home to Archer Street with a request. He wants to know if the boys will return with him to his new house to help him build a bridge. A river near his home has suffered massive flooding more than once, and the bridge is the only solution to make it passable.

His question barely leaves his lips when four of the boys answer with a resounding “no.” One of them, however, understands Michael better than the others. After some soul searching, Clay Dunbar decides to make the trip with his father. Matthew and the other brothers can’t comprehend just what motivates Clay, but Clay is unmoving in his decision. He packs a bag, says goodbye to his sweetheart, and travels to the address Michael has left behind. In the process of helping Michael build the bridge, Clay will come to know his father even better and become the go-between his family needs to heal from tragedy.

Author Markus Zusak left his readers begging for more with his previous novel The Book Thief. That book offered a kaleidoscope of experiences and ideas, all written in prose that would make even the most dedicated writer envious. The characters, headed by Death himself, made fans worldwide laugh and cry, sometimes all within the space of the same page.

Bridge of Clay gives readers more of Zusak’s writing world. The unexpected turns of phrase and that familiar kaleidoscope reappear. Zusak works his magic of offering small pieces of his story to readers and guiding them as they put the pieces together. His writing style makes readers work a little harder to get through the story, a welcome change from some of the breezy books that get published as contemporaries.

Below the surface of the writing itself, however, the story of Bridge of Clay doesn’t move much. Zusak’s choice to make Matthew the narrator and Clay the main character makes sense sometimes. At other times, readers will wish they could have heard Clay’s opinion straight from him.

The plot is a quiet one, focusing heavily on what the boys felt and thought as they experienced the death of a character and the desertion of their father. Zusak also gives ample room to Michael’s history: his childhood and a failed romance as well as his hopes and dreams. Matthew relates these stories as they were told to him, acting as the metaphorical bridge that connects the past and the present. Clay, then, becomes the bridge between the present and the future, but his role doesn’t offer many surprises the minute he decides to leave with his father.

While the death of a secondary character will surprise many, the necessity for the death—and, indeed, the character at all—may make readers scratch their heads. That character’s story arc takes up space Zusak could have used to share more about the other three brothers. Matthew gets his spot in the limelight as narrator and Clay as the person resolving the problems, but the other three Dunbar boys don’t appear as much as they can or should. The book purports to be about the five Dunbar boys but actually only focuses on two of them.

Diehard Zusak fans will enjoy Bridge of Clay for its prose, but readers new to Zusak’s work would be better off sticking with The Book Thief. For that reason, I think readers should Borrow Bridge of Clay.