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Bridge of Clay

Review

Bridge of Clay

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.  

Reviewed by Anushka Giri 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