Bridge of Clay is a complex and yet glaringly simple story, revealing snapshots of everyday experiences while making you feel that each moment is significant.
The premise is that the Dunbar boys have fended for themselves since both of their parents left them (I won’t give details for fear of revealing too much). Matthew, the eldest brother, narrates how his family went through stages of bliss, tragedy, separation and mending; in Matthew’s eyes, this is the story of the titular character and fourth Dunbar boy, Clay.
We enter the story after the end, with Matthew describing his odd actions in a small town as he digs up a dog and a snake carcass, and an old typewriter which he uses to write the story we are reading. This prelude sets us up for the explanation to be revealed to us over the course of the oncoming story.
Reading Bridge of Clay is mesmerising, as you are always in the process of trying to remember where you are. You try to place the snippets of information which have been revealed to you in scatters already, while also figuring out what time frame you have just been thrown in to and what the significance is of the scene you’re in.
This feeling of suspension is supported by the distinctive writing style. Zusak alternates disinterested statements which might encompass months or years with paragraphs composed of similes and visual descriptions. These rich descriptive sections often have little relevance to the storyline but contribute to your sense of setting or atmosphere. Other cases which are indeed pertinent to the characters’ lives are written in the exact same style, forcing you to decide for yourself which passages are the critical ones and which are not:
“Then, one night, the rain stopped.
The river continued to roar, but in time began to recede.
All through the days the river was brown, and churned like the making of chocolate. But at sunrise and sunset there was colour and light – the glow, then dying of fire. The dawn was gold, and the water burned, and it bled into dark before night.”
This style serves to suspend the reader in a state of whimsy as you are pulled through Matthew’s memories.
There are two particular sub-stories which I feel merit specific note.
First is that of Penny Dunbar, the boys’ mother. She is a refugee from Austria, and the section which deals with her story before arriving in Australia was by far my favourite portion of the book; there are many sections of Bridge of Clay which try to tug on your heart-strings, but the only section to actually make me shed a tear was the scene where Penny leaves Austria. Funnily enough, I read this while on a bus in Sydney, the very city which houses Penny and her family for the majority of the novel. Honestly, Penny’s story is so beautiful that the book might be worth reading just for her.
Secondly, Clay’s relationship with his friend Carey is a gorgeous testament to relationships between people who know each other in the quiet way of old friends. They know each other’s ways and they love all of the simple things they associate with that person. In this, Zusak uses repeated phrases to describe Clay’s notion of Carey, echoing back to his impression of the sun on her forearms the afternoon they met. Their relationship makes the reader muse on all of the small things in our lives which are significant in hindsight, even if they seemed normal and banal at the time.
Bridge of Clay is a quiet rollercoaster, with each phrase written as if it carries a great weight. It is a novel in celebration of the small things in life and the simple, fleeting moments that make up our lives.
Myra is a Sydney-based writer and 2018 Communications Intern with Writing NSW.