Buzz: Follow up to the international bestseller The Book Thief.
Review: There is a very literal bridge at the centre of Bridge of Clay. It’s lovingly hand built and inspired by the Roman wonder Pont Du Gard — the UNESCO heritage aqueduct that spans a humble river in the South of France. That bridge has three tiers of carefully crafted archways, each building on the other, and gradually jigsawing together. Pont du Gard's hefty stone blocks hold together through friction alone, without the use of mortar.
I think it’s fair to say there’s lot in the literary structure of Bridge of Clay, that — probably both intentionally and unintentionally — mirror the structure of its famous Roman inspiration. You arch through the story, dipping your toes in here and there. Key events are hinted at, and circled around, long before they’re revealed, and many things are overstated or understated as they’re fed through the perspective of the narrator, Matthew; the oldest of five brothers. Bricks of narrative are carefully crafted, then slotted into place one at a time, although not chronologically. Gradually, gradually, the full form comes into focus and you can see your way to the other side. And, like the Pont du Gard, it’s a friction-held feat of structural engineering you’re never quite sure is going to hold.
The bridge metaphor may seem laboured, but I can only imagine that the book was constructed with exactly this in mind. A vision of the Pont Du Gard in word form. But the beauty of Bridge of Clay is for all its magnificent strides and epic reaches, the core story is a simpler one: five emotionally illiterate boys mourning the death of their mother. We’re told early on: “Our mother was dead. Our father had fled.” Leaving the five ‘Dunbar boys’ living a semi-feral existence in suburban Australia, under the loose guardianship of the oldest brother Matthew. Matthew is old enough to earn a living and pay the bills, but despite his best efforts, his four brothers are largely left to process their grief, and find their way, alone. We also dip into the backstory of their mother, Penny, a concert pianist who escaped the U.S.S.R. to become first a cleaner and then an English Language teacher; and their father, Michael, a small town artist with a broken heart, who had given up on life before meeting Penny. There is also Carey, one brother’s would-be girlfriend and a talented apprentice jockey. The boys live in Sydney’s racing quarter and racing symbolism looms almost as large as the bridge.
But the five brothers themselves are what truly bring the book to life; they’re not the kind of characters who usually populate the pages of literary fiction. Clay, the second youngest brother, forms the centre of the story, and he barely speaks. Tommy was only five when their mother died and has spent the intervening years caring for the animals his brothers have gifted to him in a clumsy attempt to fill the hole. Henry is the wise-cracking wheeler-dealer, and the second-oldest Rory has “scrap-metal eyes,” They all repress, rather than express their feelings, and when their emotions do come out it is through either comedy, or more often, violence. Words aren’t their strong point, despite their mother’s obsessive love of the Odyssey and the Iliad; the drama of which has rooted down in each boy’s soul. So, when Matthew does finally set finger to ancient typewriter to narrate this story, his narrative style is a little on the overblown and dramatic side.
So, there’s an Ancient Greek-inspired narrative style to go with the Ancient Roman-inspired narrative structure.
Depending on your taste, that Pont du Gard-like structural gameplay can be a thrilling puzzle to solve, or a patience-trying irritation. Or sometimes a bit of both. You can’t help wondering if there isn’t a simpler way to get to the other side. And of course there is, but that would be missing the point. Sometimes you have to build a bridge to show you can, and as a reader you can choose to be part of that, or not. It certainly takes patience and faith to wait while all those inter-connecting story-bricks slot, one by one, into place. Yes, maybe those bricks could have been packed a little more tightly together. Maybe there was one ostentatious arch too many. But the characters are good enough, and unusual enough, to pull you through regardless. And there’s no denying the audacity of the ambitious scale, and that’s an impressive thing in itself.
Published: Doubleday, 11th October 2018