Monday, March 4, 2019

"Bridge of Clay" by Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay
by Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

It’s that time of month again - book club! This month, we’re featuring Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. Each month you can read my review and the opinions of my fellow book clubbers. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below.
Next month, we will be reading The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton, another Australian author. Please join us on 1 April to discuss.

The Dunbar boys bring each other up in a house run by their own rules. A family of ramshackle tragedy - their mother is dead, their father has fled - they love and fight, and learn to reckon with the adult world.
It is Clay, the quiet one, who will build a bridge; for his family, for his past, for his sins. He builds a bridge to transcend humanness. To survive.
A miracle and nothing less.

Book Video

In the beginning there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn’t the beginning, it’s before it, it’s me, and I’m Matthew, and here I am, in the kitchen, in the night—the old river mouth of light—and I’m punching and punching away. The house is quiet around me.
As it is, everyone else is asleep.
I’m at the kitchen table.
It’s me and the typewriter—me and the old TW, as our long-lost father said our long-lost grandmother used to say. Actually, she’d called it the ol’ TW, but such quirks have never been me. Me, I’m known for bruises and levelheadedness, for height and muscle and blasphemy, and the occasional sentimentality. If you’re like most people, you’ll wonder if I’d bother stringing a sentence together, let alone know anything about the epics, or the Greeks. Sometimes it’s good to be underestimated that way, but even better when someone sees it. In my case, I was lucky:
For me there was Claudia Kirkby.
There was a boy and a son and a brother.
Yes, always for us there was a brother, and he was the one—the one of us amongst five of us—who took all of it on his shoulder. As ever, he’d told me quietly, and deliberately, and of course he was on the money. There was an old typewriter buried in the old backyard of an old-backyard-of-a-town, but I’d had to get my measurements right, or I might dig up a dead dog or a snake instead (which I did, on both counts). I figured if the dog was there and the snake was there, the typewriter couldn’t be far.
It was perfect, pirateless treasure.
[Want more? Click below to read a longer excerpt.]

Praise for the Book
“Exquisitely written multigenerational family saga ... With heft and historical scope, Zusak creates a sensitively rendered tale of loss, grief, and guilt's manifestations." ~ Publishers Weekly
“In 2005, the Australian writer dazzled readers and secured a perch on bestseller lists with The Book Thief ... this book too is a stunner. Devastating, demanding and deeply moving, Bridge of Clay unspools like a kind of magic act in reverse, with feats of narrative legerdemain concealed by misdirection that all make sense only when the elements of the trick are finally laid out. In words that seem to ache with emotion, or perhaps, more aptly, with the suppression of it, Mr. Zusak moves us in and out of time. Grief and sacrifice lie at the heart of things, and we can feel it through Mr. Zusak's writing even before we understand the story's real contours.” ~ Wall Street Journal
“What truly stands out about Bridge of Clay is the intensity of the prose - the potency of the heartbreak. The depth of grief and loss is so palpable you can all but feel the blood, sweat, and tears that went into crafting the story.” ~ Entertainment Weekly
“As with The Book Thief, much of the appeal of the novel lies in Zusak's heartfelt love for his characters and for language. The book sings in short musical sentences like poetry, and words stop you in your tracks.” ~ Herald Sun
“I am pleased to recommend ... Markus Zusak's extraordinary novel Bridge of Clay, which I suspect I'll reread many times. It's a sprawling, challenging, and endlessly rewarding book. But it also has the raw and real and unironized emotion that courses through all of Zusak's books. I'm in awe of him.” ~ John Green

My Review
I bought this book from a bookstore.

By Lynda Dickson
The Dunbars are “a family of ramshackle tragedy”. Writing on the typewriter he digs up from his grandmother’s garden, oldest brother Matthew tells the story of his brothers Rory, Henry, Clay, and Tommy. Twenty-year-old Matthew is “the responsible one: The long-standing breadwinner”. Eighteen-year-old Rory is “the invincible one: The human ball and chain”. Seventeen-year-old Henry is “the moneymaker, the friendly one”. Sixteen-year-old Clay is “the quiet one, or the smiler”. And thirteen-year-old Tommy is the youngest, the pet collector”, whose pets – including a mule name Achilles - are named for the characters of Greek mythology who inhabit the tales their mother grew up with. But this is, essentially, Clay’s story: “We were all of us changed through him.” After an absence of eight years following their mother’s death, the boys’ father Michael comes back and asks his sons to help him build a bridge on his rural property. Clay is the only to take him up on his offer, and when he leaves to go with him, his brothers see it as a betrayal, and Matthew tells him not to come back. But Clay's actions will eventually bring them all back together.
Our narrator Matthew writes cryptically, dropping hints of what is to come and interweaving stories from the past and the present, so that we have to work hard to put the pieces together and come up with the story as a whole. This turns what is, in essence, a simple family story into a literary masterpiece. We learn about the boys’ mother Penelope, how she came to leave them, and the part Homer and the piano played in both her life and her death. We learn about their father, his mother Adelle who originally owned the typewriter, his first love Abbey, and how he came to be known as “the murderer”. We find out how Penelope and Michael meet and how, while being opposites, they were a perfect match for each other. Books played a major part in both their lives and the lives of their children. For Penelope, there were Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, from which Tommy named his pets. For Michael, there was The Quarryman, the biography of Michelangelo Buonarotti, which became Clay’s favorite and with which he wooed Carey. In addition to the books, certain objects keep making an appearance: Adelle’s typewriter, Penelope’s piano, Penelope and Michael’s marital bed, Clay’s peg, and Achilles the mule. And I love this recurring line: “… it was strange to think, but he’d marry that girl one day.”
In his narrative, Matthew speaks directly to us, like he is recounting random memories:
“… here I am, in the kitchen, in the night—the old river mouth of light—and I’m punching and punching away.”
“And what else? What else was there, as we skip the years like stones? Did I mention how …”
“As it was, it started with me, in sixth grade, and now, as I type, I’m guilty; I apologize. This, after all, is Clay’s story, and now I write for myself.”
“Even now, as I punch what happened out …”
“There’s one more story I can tell you now, before I can leave you in peace.”
The book is beautifully formatted, with parts made to look like they were actually written with a typewriter. Each section contains one more element, building upon those in the previous sections and revealing a little bit more each time. The author interweaves four romances (three tragic and one happy) and writes in rich metaphors, the most obvious of which is the bridge bringing Michael back to his boys. Even though the language the author uses is simple, the construction and content are complex. He masterfully captures the Aussie vernacular and the Aussie spirit, and he has the ability to evoke images with a few sparse words:
“I remember how once it rained a whole fortnight, in summer, and we came home deep-fried in mud.”
“There was rain like a ghost you could walk through. Almost dry when it hit the ground.”
The book is full of touching moments described so matter-of-factly:
“They’d brought her in the metronome, and it was one of the boys who said it. I think his name was Carlos. ‘Breathe in time with this, Miss.’”
“… the woman inside was weightless. The coffin weighed a ton. She was a feather wrapped up in a chopping block.”
“She was famous for winning a Group One race, and dying the very next day—and Clay was the one to blame.”
“He was a great horse,” she went on, “and the perfect story—we wouldn’t love him so much if he’d lived.”
“She would never see us grow up. Just cry and silently cry.”
And, once again, as in The Book Thief, Death makes an appearance as a character:
“She’d started leaving us that morning, and death was moving in: He was perched there on a 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.”
“It was in there, out there, waiting. It lived on our front porch.”
Beautiful, poignant, memorable.
Warnings: coarse language, sexual references, violence.

Book Clubbers’ Thoughts
Denise: “I read the book and listened to the audiobook at the same time. I had trouble following the story because of the time jumps. I didn’t finish it.”
Jan: “I didn’t get the significance of the bridge. I might have liked the book better if it didn’t go backward and forward in time.”
Kerrie: “I loved it. The writing was beautiful. Loyalty was a unifying force among the brothers.”
Marie-Louise: “I enjoyed it. I could relate to the sibling aspects of the book. To answer Jan’s question, the bridge is a metaphor. Clay was the bridge between his brothers and his father. There were a lot of technical aspects. I would be interested to see what a bridge engineer thought of this book.”
Maryann: “I didn’t like it, but there were parts I related to.”
Conclusion: Pretty even.

About the Author
Markus Zusak
Markus Zusak is the international bestselling author of six novels, including The Book Thief and most recently, Bridge of Clay. His work is translated into more than forty languages and has spent more than a decade on the New York Times bestseller list, establishing Zusak as one of the most successful authors to come out of Australia.
All of Zusak's books - including earlier titles, The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, When Dogs Cry (also titled Getting the Girl), The Messenger (or I am the Messenger) - have been awarded numerous honors around the world, ranging from literary prizes to readers choice awards to prizes voted on by booksellers.
In 2013, The Book Thief was made into a major motion picture, and in 2018 was voted one of America's all-time favourite books, achieving 14th position on the PBS Great American Read. Also in 2018, Bridge of Clay was selected as a best book of the year in publications ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Wall Street Journal.
Markus Zusak grew up in Sydney, Australia, and still lives there with his wife and two children.