So story. My first read of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak took me about four months to finish. I blame college. I Am the Messenger took probably two. The only one I’ve read in a reasonable amount of time is the Underdogs trilogy, but only because I read it in the summer. After that, I thought I’d broken my Weird Zusak Jinx (the most thrilling combination of letters I’ve possibly ever typed), but… turns out I haven’t. I hit a reading slump during the past month, and finishing Bridge of Clay took about a month longer than I’d hoped, despite the fact I bought it the day it came out.
Luckily, I’ve finished now, so allow me to babble.
Bridge of Clay follows five brothers, the Dunbars, who all live together in their childhood home with an assortment of animals. The fourth brother, Clay, spends his time running and watching horse races. Life goes on as normal, until one day Michael Dunbar, the boys’ father, returns. He left them several years before, so things are strained. However, when he asks them for help to build a bridge over the river on his property, Clay accepts. The story then progresses non-sequentially, flipping between the present and the past, and slowly we see not just how Clay and the other boys spend their time, but also how the lives of their parents Michael and Penny have affected the boys. Illness, loneliness, heartache, and death make this family’s life difficult, but Clay finds a way to both build a bridge and find something like peace.
The characters are great. Michael and Penny Dunbar are amazing, with a touching love story. The brothers are wild, slightly violent, but compelling to spend time with. Clay’s girlfriend, Carey Novac, is a good character too, as are the minor figures like McAndrew and Abbey. Matthew, the eldest brother and our narrator, does a marvelous job telling this story, with a tone full of an almost-reverence for his brother and mother, who are the epicenters of this plot. Of those two the true star, of course, is Clay, who is a sweet, thoughtful, slightly mysterious boy who holds his family together. And then there are the pets: a cat, fish, pigeon, dog, and mule, all named to reference the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. I loved them, especially Achilles the mule for his personality and Telemachus the pigeon for the hilarious unlikeliness of his name.
The non-chronological nature of this tale can be a little confusing, as there are no indicators at the beginning of the chapters of when we are. However, Zusak never makes us wonder for long, always orienting us in one way or another. As the story continues, we learn more and more until a full picture is gradually formed. This is without doubt a sad story, full of melancholy and hardship, but it is not without hope, nor love. Several things occurred which I did not expect, but that is not, however, to say this is a baffling, nonsensical story. It’s just that Zusak knows how to craft a tale that feels like reality in its unpredictability, yet he also knows how to make it beautiful.
And that is this book’s greatest strength: the words. Zusak’s ability to tell stories is remarkable. His imagery is fantastic, his portrayals of emotions is skillful, and his treatment of life is remarkable. Zusak reminds us with every line of Bridge of Clay that there is poetry in the everyday. His writing is strange, unexpected, and stunning. He writes many fascinating, poetic lines, so many that made me stop and reread them so I could properly marvel at them.
Yet while the writing is pretty spectacular, and the story heartbreakingly lovely, I didn’t adore this book like I did The Book Thief. The story, characters, and writing in Clay are good, but just not as good as in Thief. It was harder for me to get into this. And a couple times I had trouble keeping track of who all the brothers were, especially Henry and Rory.
In the end though, Bridge of Clay is a great story. There are excellent characters, gorgeous writing, and a mournful, moving tale. It can’t hold up to The Book Thief for me, but I didn’t really expect it to. Still though, Zusak shows his considerable skill here. I still love this writer. Even if we have to wait another thirteen years for another book from him, that’s okay. The wait will be worth it.
Overall rating: 8.5/10
The next book I’m reading is the next logical step, I felt: one Achilles to the next (this one’s not going to be a mule, though). That’s right, I’m finally reading Song of Achilles!