Bridge of Clay a flaw too far Review
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.