Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak.
This mighty novel is a bit of a dog’s breakfast: as it starts it’s hard to work out time frames and who’s writing about who. It takes a chapter or two to get the head around the fact that this is a family story, and a great one, but the narrator, Matthew, the oldest of the Dunbar boys, has never tried this writing lark before, especially on his grandmother’s old TW (typewriter) disinterred from her former backyard. But he has to tell the story of himself and his four brothers, and how they fared after their mother died and their father (The Murderer) left them to fend for themselves within a year of her death. All – plus warts – must be revealed, a great tide of secrets, yearnings, humour, joy, tragedy and terrible loss, so that the new version of their family can flourish, shorn of all sorrow and guilt.
Matthew is not a natural writer, but he’s ruthlessly honest – especially about the lack of musical ability of all five boys. Before their mother Penelope had fled Communist Poland as a refugee, she had enjoyed minor success as a concert pianist and wished to pass on her love of music to her Australian larrikin sons – well, they loved music, too: they just didn’t want to play it. They did, however, hang on to her every word as she recounted Homer’s great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, bequeathed to her by her father, who looked ‘like Stalin’s Statue’.
Their father, Michael, had a history, too: Penelope was not his first wife, who left him because he was too ‘small-town’ for her; he was to suffer from that label for years afterwards, until he met Penny and the piano that she had worked so hard to buy outside his front door. It had been delivered to the wrong address – that was about the luckiest thing to happen to Michael Dunbar, ever: his second family. Until cancer intervened and ruined everything, exposing him for the weak man he always thought he was.
Matthew is ruthless in his account of his father’s failings, especially when he turns up out of the blue to request help from his sons to build a bridge to prevent flooding on his country property. They haven’t seen him for years, and have made a slapdash, ramshackle life for themselves: he is not welcome, but one son does take pity; 16 year old Clay, who decides to help for his own mysterious reasons. Clay, ‘the boy who smiles but never laughs’ has decided that his reprehensible father is worth helping.
Markus Zusak is justly famed for his marvellous novel ‘The Book Thief’: this novel reinforces his stellar reputation as a truly great storyteller, able to make us laugh or cry at will: Matthew punching on the Old TW never had a better guide. Messy, muddly magic. SIX STARS