Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
This book is about horse races, first loves, and storytelling—but it’s also about guilt, loss, grief, and family: brothers, fathers, and a many-named mother.
The novel tells the coming-of-age story of five Dunbar brothers whose father disappears after losing their Chopin-playing, Homer-loving mother to cancer. Later, their father returns into their lives asking for help to build a bridge. All of the brothers refuse to help, except for Clay.
The book peers into the lives of not only Clay, but all the family members and those whose stories intertwine with the Dunbars.
Let me start off by writing that Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is one of my absolute favorite books. I first read it in elementary school, but the characters still stand vividly in my mind. That being said, I was a bit anxious to read Zusak’s latest novel, Bridge of Clay. He hadn’t published in over ten years, and—even though I had waited excitedly for the new book—I was afraid to start reading Bridge of Clay. I was hesitant because I wanted to enjoy the characters in the new book as much as I love Rudy Steiner and Hans Hubermann from The Book Thief.
When I finally worked up enough courage and time to give his new novel a fair reading, I must admit I was shocked by the first 100 pages or so. The novel isn’t at all what I was expecting. Though published and marketed to a young readers audience, I think that this novel better fits an adult audience. I worry that a younger audience might pass up this book as insignificant or boring, when I feel the novel is anything but that.
This book contains carefully crafted, beautiful, lyrical prose with a clear influence from famous Ancient Greek writing. A classics lover at heart, I appreciated all of the subtle (and many not-so-subtle) references to the great Homeric works—from the epithets to the home address to the pet names to Penelope’s reading preferences.
You’ll notice a few lines towards the end of the novel borrowed from earlier in the book. I believe it’s this repetition that closes the work so gorgeously. This stylistic choice is Zusak at his finest.
As much as I adore the sophisticated writing and mother character who feels very real to me, I also recognize that Zusak took some big risks when crafting this novel. With a highly detailed and incredibly emotional family history, temporarily withheld information (sometimes for hundreds of pages), artistically vague description, and switchbacks in both time and storylines, the book can be difficult to follow. It demands a patient audience. It begs for your emotions and your empathy. And this sort of book might not appeal to a large audience, particularly not a young readers audience.
It’s a beautiful book, but Zusak makes you work for it.
And I’m glad he did.