Five Dunbar boys living in Sydney, with a dead mother Penelope, and a runaway father Michael Dunbar, referred to as the murderer - this is the opening premise of the book "Bridge of Clay" by the Australian author Markus Zusak. I have read “The Book Thief” by Zusak and it’s a great story, usually the first book you read from an author, if it’s a good book would play such chords that the next one from the same author sets the bar rather high. This time it was the other way around. When I read Bridge of Clay, for me it rated higher than The Book Thief. Maybe because it explores the topic of love and family in such a unique way. I have to say Zusak is not one of my favourite authors, I find his array of sentiments written repeatedly in small sentences a bit distracting. He also has a habit of foretelling the events of the book, not in their entirety - the details of the events still stay tucked away but the build up to the event itself can be quite drawn out.
Having said that, let’s talk about what I do love about this book. It is definitely the build up of characters of all five brothers. Interesting to see how living in the same circumstances have brought out completely different personality traits in all of them, with Matthew being responsible, Henry as rowdy, Rory a fighter, Clay as sensitive and Tommy as the youngest of the family who gets away with most things such as keeping a plethora of pets with quirky names and habits. Their chemistry is so pure, raw and you can see it in the way the bothers beat each other up but are also willing to die for one another. The resilience with which they have raised themselves up in the absence of their parents is chaotic and clumsy on their best days. Yet you can feel the strength of the brother’s bonds so deeply. When Clay leaves to be with his father, brothers are cut by his betrayal. Upon return, Matthew feels “so damn good to see him” but pretends otherwise, he “couldn’t show how much he didn’t want to hit him, he had to look willing and sure” to beat him up after which Rory carries him in the house. There is no pretence, they wear their emotions on their sleeves.
Lets take a moment to speak of the expertise with which Zusak riddles his work with metaphors. Some of the metaphors and similes he uses blow me away. When Matthew is speaking of her mother’s illness he describes it as “Death was leaning close, an arm draped over the fridge” or talking about her treatments as “she was opened up and shut back tight, like a car on the side of the highway”. The mere fact that the name of the book is “ Bridge of Clay” is very symbolic as the story is of Clay building a bridge both physically and symbolically to bridge the gap between his father and his brothers. Why it was so crucial to build this bridge and that too by Clay and his father when it was considered as a stark betrayal on part of the remaining four brothers is the essence of the story. How it forces one to rethink the use of the word murderer when Matthew says “he killed us, what we were is dead”.
The recurring reference to their father as the murderer is curious in itself as the father comes off as a devoted figure before the mother’s death. This plays to Zusak’s afore-mentioned tendency to foretell the events without giving the plot away. It leaves you curious as to what could have gone so wrong in this beautifully chaotic family that pitched the sons against their father. The protracted detailing of the events of the past is almost inevitable to understand the significance of the part Clay and Michael play in Penelope’s story line. When you reach the climax of the story and the truth lies bare, you can almost forgive Zusak for the overstretched storytelling. Varying degrees of emotions grip your heart and you feel the burden of truth within yourself. It makes you think to what extent a human would stretch to protect his/her loved ones from the cruelty of everyday reality that we call life…