It’s been a long wait. 13 years since the publication of one of my all-time favourite novels “The Book Thief” Australian author Markus Zusak is back. For a writer of an acknowledged modern classic this book snuck out last year and has recently appeared in paperback. This relative lack of fanfare and the time between the two novels made me a little anxious but when I saw a copy on the library shelves I knew I just had to rejig my reading schedule to fit it in.
This is actually Zusak’s 6th novel, those before his major breakthrough being aimed at the young adult market, one of which “I Am The Messenger” (2002) has been sitting on my shelves unread for some time but I have not dared to read it in case my admiration for this author is any way diminished. In fact both “The Book Thief” and this latest novel could be seen as being appropriate for young adults but both demand a wider audience.
There are elements of the predecessor in “Bridge Of Clay”, especially in the narrative style. Here, Matthew Dunbar slowly weaves the tale of his family, jumping backwards and forwards in time, half-revealing events that are explored fully later in much the same way as Death does when he narrates “The Book Thief”. Here, however, the stakes are not so high, the plot is a family tale without the huge issues that makes “The Book Thief” such an important read. Books are once again important, a well-thumbed biography of Michelangelo spans the generations and there’s a lot of running which reminded me of Rudy and his Jesse Owens obsession.
Matthew narrates the story of his parents and his four brothers but especially Clay, a gifted runner who is attracted to his neighbour Carey, an apprentice jockey, and who is torn by the loss of both of his parents and determined to build bridges in every sense when a face from the past shows up. To start with it does feel all over the place, as did “The Book Thief” (I always advise the many people I have recommended the book to stick with it until they are used to the narrative conceit) as initially some of the events are hard to follow but it all makes sense as we are drip-fed the story of the Dunbars.
Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content. It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel. Like “The Book Thief” which improves with each re-read I think the events that washed over me on first reading will have a much deeper significance on a revisit. This is one of those books that when you finish you will be tempted to start all over again. I’ve got to hand my library copy back but I will be purchasing this so I can read it again. True, thematically, it is all on a much smaller scale than “The Book Thief” and lacks the power and perhaps some of the lasting resonance of that work but it is high-quality fiction which did everything to me that a very good book should. After over a decade of waiting my expectations were shaky but really I couldn’t have asked for more from this book.
Bridge Of Clay was published by Doubleday in 2018. I read the 2019 Black Swan paperback edition.