Bridge of Clay
Markus Zusak, after critical and popular success with his debut novel The Book Thief, is reputed to have spent twelve years in writing the much-anticipated Bridge of Clay. It involves five Australian brothers, the Dunbars, who have to rear themselves among pet animals with Greek names after their mother dies while they are still young and their father absconds. The story is related by Matthew the eldest boy who equates his father’s abscondment with murder as he punches out the narrative on an old Remington typewriter. This book, like the Odyssey, which the boys loved from hearing Homer’s story from their mother, takes us as readers on an emotional roller-coaster journey in a unique circumnavigatory style, blending past and present until we reach its heart-wrenching conclusion.
Before he married, the father, the previously staid Michael Dunbar, worked in the mines and painted part time. But his first love, the restless Abbey, whose portraits he delighted in depicting, eventually grew distant from him and, rising above her class towards friends ‘who had clean fingernails,’ abandoned him.
Some years later Penelope Lesciuszko landed on Australian shores as a refugee from the Eastern Bloc. She cried ‘stray, silent tears’ as she had to leave her father who wanted her to have a better life. On her arrival in Australia, while struggling to install a piano which her father had taught her to play, she was helped by Michael Dunbar whom she fortuitously met on the street. There is a wonderful description of an immigrant’s battle with an adoptive language here as Penelope, attracted to Michael who later became her husband, tries to plant her own words in the middle of her sentence to invite him to visit her. The once bitten twice shy Michael on the other hand was naturally, initially apprehensive. ‘When he kissed her he tasted Europe, but also the taste of not-Abbey’, and he wasn’t so much afraid of being left again ‘as condemning someone else to second best’.
Once married, Penelope proceeds to bring up her children with love of music and story until her untimely and painful death from cancer. The deep affection Michael and the boys feel for Penelope and she for them six months before she dies is captured movingly by Matthew: ‘I see the boys and tangled arms. I see our mother cloaked around them…when boys were only that, just boys, and murderers still just men’.
Zusak is a master of foreshadowing when, for example, the other brothers were prepared to sell their ramshackle home, Clay the fourth brother wanted to keep it as a memory as ‘one night he would find beauty there. And commit his greatest mistake’. This tantalising, repeated non-telling throughout the novel ratchets up the suspense in short snappy sentences and the prose sings with spunky originality. Matthew observes a pink and grey sky as ‘the best graffiti in town’. And the author, who is fond of triads also juxtaposes animate and inanimate like a metaphysical poet when, for example, through the voice of Matthew, he refers to Penelope first setting foot in Australia ‘with a suitcase and a scrunched-up stare’.
The father returns out of the blue years later to ask the boys to help him build a bridge over a river on his land. Clay agrees to do this and the symbolism is clear: in building the bridge he is trying to heal the rift between father and sons. And Clay is prepared to make a supreme sacrifice in so doing. Indeed if there is a theme in the novel, that would seem to be it: there is always hope that things broken can be made good again.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 14/10/2018.