Anna Schaeffer
Mercury Staff

I read the final chapter of “Bridge of Clay” — the brand-new
release by “The Book Thief” author Markus Zusak — in London while looking out
over the Tower Bridge. I thought of my four siblings, the same number of
brothers in the family of the protagonist, Clay. I thought about the process of
reconciliation with an estranged loved one and how the gritty, laborious
process of constructing a physical stone bridge parallels rebuilding an
emotional relationship. I also thought about how I didn’t want the novel to
end, because Zusak’s narrative of Clay, his family and a bridge is one that
makes it one of Zusak’s best.

The eldest of five Dunbar brothers narrates the story of
Clay, the second-youngest in the family. The siblings grew up in Australia in a
house of seven with parents whose love story originated with a serendipitously
incorrect address for some piano deliverymen. As the older boys reach their
early teenage years, however, doctors diagnose their mother, Claire, with
rapidly progressing cancer. She holds on for years, finally asking her husband
to help her end it all: physician-assisted suicide. But Clay sees it happen,
and Mr. Dunbar flees from his five young boys, abandoning them to a life on
their own.

A decade later, he comes back. The five boys look at their
father — “the Murderer,” they call him — in silence, as Mr. Dunbar explains his
need for help in building a bridge. Realizing none of his sons, now so much
older than when he left them, will help, he leaves. But Clay follows.

As Clay pores over architectural textbooks and labors until
his hands bleed, he learns about his father, and the reader gains an
understanding of the family’s past. Stories of Claire’s escape from the Eastern
European communist bloc reveal why she forced the boys to learn music at that
old family piano, and painful truths about Mr. Dunbar’s first marriage explain
why he gave up painting for good. In the long months of a two-person
construction project, father and son exchange few words, but the healing
process between them continues as every stone finds its place in the massive
bridge.

This novel resembles the out-of-the-box writing style of
“The Book Thief” and the bold young protagonist of “I Am the Messenger.” “The
Book Thief,” his most celebrated work, follows a child living Nazi Germany and
uses a personification of death as a narrator. This historical perspective and
unusual narration style make “The Book Thief” particularly salient; although
“Bridge of Clay” doesn’t have the same striking quality, it reaches the
audience in a more personal level.

Zusak’s most recent work is an excellent telling of layered
stories out of chronological order, letting the reader in on the story, one bit
at a time. Over the course of “Bridge of Clay,” the reader becomes familiar
with the title character and the Dunbar family dynamics. Any person who has
lost a loved one can identify with five grieving young men and the process of
emotional healing. A reader with siblings, especially brothers, will find humor
and truth in the boys’ dynamics. A lover of running or architecture can enjoy
the specific attention to those topics, written almost as artfully as poetry.
“Bridge of Clay” is a worthwhile read — funny but poignant, sorrowful but not
without hope, creative and logical. It is one big beautiful metaphor about the
slow process of healing, the power of forgiveness and the strength of a
well-built bridge.