Written 12 years after his breakthrough best-seller The Book Thief, Bridge of Clay is a beautiful and moving novel; but also a very flawed one.
For the first 200 pages I was not at all convinced I could continue reading. Many aspects were overwritten, as if Zusak had spent much too long agonising over each and every word – trying to fill sentences with as much meaning and beauty as possible. The result is a very disjointed beginning. But it leads to quite a poignant ending.
The Dunbar brothers are orphaned – their mother died of cancer years ago, and their father abandoned them not long after. The eldest, Matthew, narrates the novel, but the second-youngest of the five brothers, Clay, is the focus. When their father returns after many years to seek the boys’ help to build a bridge, only Clay looks to reconnect with him. But in doing so, he leaves behind his schooling, his running, his brothers and the girl he loves.
It takes the whole 600-page novel for Clay to be fully developed and realised and to do so, Zusak alternates the narrative between the present and the past, outlining the father’s life before and after his marriage to the boys’ mother, Penny. These flashbacks are clearer and more tender than the elements of the story set in the present, making them the shining light of this novel. Zusak clearly likes the nostalgia.
I’m glad I persevered with this. The ending is powerful and very moving and on the whole, I was satisfied by the narrative. But it’s a good example perhaps of why we cannot spend too long writing anything – sometimes simplicity is the most beautiful thing.