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Book review: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay is an intimidating book, the size of a brick and as eagerly anticipated as it was, following the success of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

And at times throughout it continues to challenge the reader. Zusak’s writing is unquestionably beautiful, as he captures the life of the Dunbar boys who find themselves on their own after the death of their mother and the departure of their father.

In many ways, they are typical boys, incessantly wrestling and fighting, but unfailingly loyal to each other and the animals they care for, including a mule named named Achilles. But, their situation is extraordinary and the eldest son is forced to take on the role of protector and carer of the family.

The part that I found most challenging and moving was the death of the boys’ mother, Penelope (which is mentioned early on in the novel, so no spoiler). Drawn out and arduous, it is incredibly sad so read about the boys’ and the mother’s responses to the decay brought on my cancer.

As a mother, I found it heartbreaking to read about the daily ways in which the family struggled with Penelope’s illness and the reality of her impending death. Zusak captures these realities, from the way she takes each boy on a day out, to the uncharacteristic visit to the pub together. These small moments are tender and poignant, and occasionally so sad as to be difficult to read.

The story also explores love between the sons and their father, who struggles to cope with the loss of his wife, and between Clay and his friend, Carey.

Despite the power of Zusak’s depiction of family and brotherhood, I struggled a little to get through Bridge of Clay. I know the bridge that Clay built with his father is meaningful in the context of relationships broken and restored, and the rebuilding of lives after trauma, yet I didn’t really engage with this aspect of the story. The father remained difficult to understand, while Clay – and in fact all of the boys – never really became whole to me. However, perhaps this reflects the unknowable nature of boys at a certain time in their lives. While their love for each other is clear in their actions, they offer few words of explanation, as if their physical closeness is enough.

Regardless of these qualms, Bridge of Clay is a book that has a lot going for it, from its poetic language and representation of family life. I feel that in the future many of the images will stay with me, both of the family of boys and their grief.

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