Bridge of Clay a flaw too far Re­view

Sunday Star-Times - - Escape Books -

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, Pi­cador, $37.99. Reviewed by Steve Walker.

Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel The Book Thief was a phe­nom­e­nal global suc­cess. It was that rare phe­nom­e­non, a piece of young adult fic­tion that crossed over to an adult mar­ket. Its fol­low-up has been ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated.

Bridge of Clay has been 10 years in the mak­ing. A grand tale of a rum­bus­tious fam­ily of five boys, it brims with life. Set near Syd­ney, with­out ac­tu­ally nam­ing the city, it fol­lows the Dun­bar fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly one brother, Clay, in his at­tempt to memo­ri­alise their dead mother and find out ‘‘who we re­ally are’’.

Clay is a sen­si­tive child. He strug­gles with a ‘‘tri­fecta of loss’’ – his mother, fa­ther and girl­friend have all died or dis­ap­peared. He is mo­ti­vated by his mother, Pene­lope, to read Homer and some of that epic grandeur has rubbed off on him.

There is a mythic qual­ity to his ob­ses­sion with Michelan­gelo and build­ing a bridge in mem­ory of her. He is a tal­ented yet al­most masochis­tic run­ner. The pain of his tragedy is so in­tense that only supreme ac­com­plish­ment can block it. His bridge is to be a

per­fect copy of the an­tique, el­e­gant Pont du Gard.

Clay’s elder brother, Matthew, is the nar­ra­tor. Cu­ri­ously, we find out lit­tle about him. He tells the story of this ‘‘fam­ily of ram­shackle tragedy’’ – a more con­ser­va­tive ap­proach than Zusak’s in­spired choice of Death as the nar­ra­tor of The Book Thief.

Zusak’s great achieve­ment is the fam­ily it­self. The five brothers are clearly de­lin­eated. There is the bel­liger­ent Rory, the shal­low Henry, with his fetish for aw­ful films, Tommy, a col­lec­tor of a ver­i­ta­ble menagerie, the enig­matic Clay, and Matthew. Their house is ‘‘a por­ridge of mess and fight­ing’’ and the boys are near feral. The fa­ther, known as ‘‘The Mur­derer’’ by the boys, who blame him for the death of their mother, fled to the Out­back.

Most poignant of all the char­ac­ters is Pene­lope. A refugee from Com­mu­nist Poland, she ar­rived in Aus­tralia as a gifted pi­anist. Zusak’s por­trait of her is com­pas­sion­ate and lov­ing: I sus­pect there’s some au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail in this char­ac­ter.

But the book has some deep flaws. Firstly, if it is pitched at a young adult mar­ket – and it is un­clear whether it is or not – it is too long and com­plex. Con­fu­sion is caused by Zusak’s choice of nar­ra­tive struc­ture. The plot zigzags crazily be­tween dif­fer­ent time­frames. Some events, like the death of Pene­lope, we see sev­eral times and then, in the next para­graph, we are rock­eted back into the present. The ef­fect is con­fu­sion and frus­tra­tion.

Zusak’s prose style is ul­tra stac­cato. He overuses sim­ple and in­com­plete sen­tences, of­ten in one-line para­graphs. The ef­fect is to di­vert the reader’s in­ter­est off the nar­ra­tive and on to the sur­face fea­tures of the writ­ing. It is like be­ing re­lent­lessly blud­geoned by a blunt in­stru­ment.

Zusak also an­noy­ingly teases the reader with hints and at­tempts to in­trigue, such as ‘‘Un­til now’’ or ‘‘this was go­ing to be great’’, with­out sup­ply­ing de­tails. The use of clas­si­cal ref­er­ences seems like a grab for sig­nif­i­cance.

This fam­ily saga is brave. It tries for so much. When it works it is ma­jes­tic and spec­tac­u­lar. When it doesn’t, it grates.


Au­thor Markus Zusak with ac­tor Ge­of­frey Rush at The Book Thief pre­miere spe­cial screen­ing in Syd­ney in 2014.

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