In the beginning, there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn’t the beginning…
Thus opens Markus Zusak‘s Bridge of Clay. Zusak has previously said that this novel has been two decades in the making and that, alongside being the follow-up to the wildly successful The Book Thief, meant that this story was always going to have its work cut out for it. It tells the tale of five feral brothers that have had to bring themselves up in a family saga of love and loss and tragedy that spans the lifetimes of multiple generations, and household pets.
The brothers themselves are self-named ‘barbarians.’ The story is narrated by Matthew, the eldest, the sole earner of the household inherited from their parents, one dead, one absent. Then there is Rory, the fist-happy fighter of the group; Henry, the suave-talking wheeler dealer; Clay, the enigmatic and eponymous brother around whom our story centres; and finally the loveable Tommy, who has, amongst other creatures, a mule named Achilles, a cat named Hector, Telemachus the budgie and Agamemnon the goldfish.
As the opening lines might suggest, the story is a veritable puzzle of alternating narratives and storylines. We don’t begin with the beginning, although Zusak makes it there eventually. He tells the tale of the boys’ parents, their mother Penelope, who moved to Australia from the Eastern Block, leaving behind a father who looked like a statue of Stalin. He tells the tale of their father, a failed painter whose heart was broken, leaving him grieving on his garage floor for five years before he met Penelope.
These narratives of the past are interwoven with the boys’ childhoods, and those in turn are integrated with the novel’s present, in which Clay is attempting to build a bridge with the father that abandoned the boys years ago. The story eventually spans into the boys’ future and, in fact, is constantly alluding to it throughout.
What we are left with, then, is a kind of ill-fitting narrative puzzle that doesn’t always make sense. There are certainly some pay-off moments, in which the reader is given some vital piece of information that leads to an (often tragic) moment of understanding. But the story doesn’t require such a complicated method of withholding to achieve delayed gratification. Zusak’s talents lie in the wonderful and often funny characterisation of his tragic and flawed characters, and one can’t help but wonder whether a simpler narrative would have allowed them to shine all the brighter.
Of course, the star of The Book Thief was the Grim Reaper himself, that sardonic and compassionate first-person narrator. Death, too, hangs over the characters of Bridge of Clay. The death of Penelope, the boys’ mother, is the catalyst that strings the many threads of this epic saga together, and there are many unexpected tragedies that surround it. One of Zusak’s innumerable talents is that he can find humour and beauty in even the darkest of moments, and it is this poignant blend that create some of the novel’s finest chapters.
Zusak’s prose is one of the most characteristic things about his novels. The sky is “collar-bone white,” the light “like a river mouth.” It does at times seem a little self-consciously so, with his quirk of writing each statement on a new line, a tendency that does feel at times somewhat jarring. But mostly the poetry of his prose is a real pleasure to read, especially set against the backdrop of the epic and endless Australian countryside.
When the narrative threads are finally tied up, the reader will surely feel that it has all been worth it. Whilst the story is, at times, chaotic and perhaps a little meandering, the poignant and heartbreaking finale is satisfying in its completeness. A family saga that is epic in every sense of the word, and well worth a read.