Bridge of Clay is the story of five brothers and five animals, told non-chronologically as one of them, Clay, must build a bridge. The Dunbar brothers live, fight, and grieve together, living without parents but with a selection of animals including a mule called Achilles. When their estranged father who disappeared walks back into their house and asks who will help him build a bridge, only Clay accepts. Tied up in Clay’s mind is love and sadness, and a burning sense of what happened to his mother. Matthew Dunbar, the responsible one, narrates the story of the brothers and their parents from past to present.
The novel is written in Zusak’s memorable style, weaving in ideas of storytelling and repeated motifs and wordplay as well as a lot of Homer references. It is long and perhaps a little confusing at first, but once you’ve got used to the timeline and characters, it becomes a lot more rewarding. Many of the characters are intriguing and unusual, particularly the boys’ mother Penelope and Clay himself, though some of the brothers feel less sketched out than others. The relationships in the book are equally compelling, with a lot left to inference rather than stated. It is a novel to think about, both whilst reading and afterwards (which is unsurprising to anyone who has read Zusak’s earlier The Book Thief).
Bridge of Clay is an unusual novel that plays with storytelling and unreliability, but at its heart is about a dysfunctional family and the impact of how they all cope with tragedy. It frequently makes the reader think and keeps ambiguity even through its detail; it’s less of a light read and more something to get stuck into.