It was in 2005 that Markus Zusak first published in Australia what in this country a year later was touted as a book for young people. Adult readers quickly embraced it.
It was about the horrors of the Holocaust, and it was life-affirming. It was traditional storytelling, and it was one of the most audaciously narrated books in years.
“The Book Thief” proved to be remarkable, just plain remarkable. Its narrator is Death, who feels an immediate and benign kinship with some of the humans whose stories he retells.
Of those humans and their stories, Death freely admits: “I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same things can be both.”
That dichotomy lies at the heart of “Bridge of Clay,” too, a dichotomy that is a reflection of the profound world view of Markus Zusak. And, while not an active narrator of this deeply felt new work, Death remains a haunting presence this time, too.
The novel begins with a return. Michael Dunbar returns to the family of five sons he deserted years earlier. Matthew, Clayton, Rory, Henry and Thomas have managed just fine without their father and are hardly happy to see the man they refer to as “The Murderer” enter the home he made for them, their mother and their ever-growing menagerie of animals.
Michael has a plan. He extends an invitation to his sons: He needs help building a bridge on property in the town he grew up in. Clay, however, is the only one who agrees to join his father’s struggle to build a bridge across the years, across the chaos of family, and across the very real resentments his sons are dealing with.
For right before Michael left, the ardent Penelope died of the cancer she valiantly battled after she worked to become no longer immigrant from the Eastern Bloc, but wife to Michael as well as mother — and teacher of the piano (“our symbol of boyhood misery”) and storyteller about the ancient Greeks — to each of her sons.
So, why does Clay agree to help his father with that bridge? Matthew, oldest son and the book’s “author,” says Clay is the brother “who came out smiling,” who always thinks things out, usually on the roof of their small home in the suburbs of Sydney.
Matthew also remembers that Penelope would often tell Clay, “The world wanted him badly, but what she didn’t do was ask why. Was it to hurt, to humiliate? Or to love and make great? Even now it’s hard to decide.”
For Clay is also caretaker of a breathtakingly moving family secret.
Yet there is no real mystery to be solved by “Bridge of Clay,” unless it is the mystery of family, of first love, of motherhood, of fatherhood. The mystery of loss, of grief. Or the mystery of the redemptive power of art, as Penelope plays piano, as Michael paints, as Clay builds his bridge — or as Matthew writes his bridge — for and to his father.
In dealing with these mysteries, “Bridge of Clay” is never maudlin. It is sentimental in every imaginable positive way. In fact, it will be a hardened reader who does not pause to wipe away at least one well-earned tear or to laugh preposterously loudly at least one time, having reached the end of this affectionate and poignant chronicle of a winningly boisterous family.
Or who has not, maybe, paused long enough to smile knowingly, at least once, at Markus Zusak’s impeccable rendering of both the “ugly” and the “beauty” of what he has Matthew term, “How boys and brothers love.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.