Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Fiction / YA)

This is an unusual book for me — I couldn’t put it down, became completely involved with the characters, and yet I’m having a very hard time describing it. The “plot” doesn’t half cover what the reading experience is actually like.

It’s about the Dunbar boys — the five sons of Michael and Penny Dunbar. As the novel opens, they are living alone in chaos — their mother having died and their father having absconded shortly thereafter. Written in the first-person by the oldest son, Matthew, they are self described as “a family of ramshackle tragedy.” The primary timeline follows the events of eleven years before, when Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay, and Tommy were 20, 18, 17, 16 and 13 respectively.

The center of the story is the fourth boy — Clay. Clay is a wonderful character — sweet and caring, deep and loving, vulnerable yet strong, and almost completely internal — he doesn’t say much and rarely laughs.  He’s also amazingly fast.  Clay is the holder of all the family’s stories — the real stories — and while the book moves forward linearly through the events of that time, narrative streams from the present and past are woven throughout, with these stories — and secrets — slowly exposed. The writing is thoroughly engaging. The language is poetic — not in the sense of beautiful language for its own sake, but in the sense of distilling experience and emotion into a single phrase that evokes more than straight words can convey. While I would never say it was a happy book, neither was it depressing, though I did find myself wanting to leap into the story to help.

I was surprised to find this categorized as YA — it reads very well as adult fiction. I love the fact that it is unashamedly focused on boys — how they love, how they cope, how they grow, and how they survive. I tend to read female authors (not intentionally but it works out that way) and I find the descriptions of this family different from what I usually read. Obviously, not all men (or all women) are the same, but I did feel a different perspective emerging from these pages. There is a lot of fighting, roughhousing, work intensity and focus, and physical extremism. Much behavior is explained with “just knew” or “had to be that way” without the associated exploration and understanding of “why.” Each of the five boys (and their father) have distinct personalities, but their very maleness pervades the narrative and is both unfamiliar and appealing to me.

This book is not like any other I’ve read, but aspects of it did remind me of John Irving and the setting evoked the feel of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders.

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