Contemporary Classic: ‘Bridge of Clay’ by Marcus Zusak

Marcus Zusak exceeds expectations in his new novel Bridge of Clay. This is an epic Australian tale awash with masculinity: the masculinity of deep, beautiful men. It is a story full of heart, intelligence and sensitivity. Its men are mates, brothers and family and they are men who love and cherish women. The Dunbar men are athletic, physical and even hard, yet tender and loyal. They are a “family of ramshackle tragedy”.

The structure is sophisticated. Matthew, the eldest of five Dunbar brothers, is typing the story of “one murderer, one mule and one boy”. Each chapter begins in typewritten font before settling into Goudy Old Style. The typewriter itself is part of the narrative and family heritage. The boy who Matthew writes about is the one “who took it all on his shoulder” – the fourth Dunbar boy, Clay.

Early on we know that the boys’ mother has died and their father has fled. We are forewarned about the long backstory about the mule, Achilles, only one of a number of past tales that enrich this book. These strands are elemental and seamless, and we are swept up in each.

We learn of the boys’ mother, Penelope – the Mistake Maker, the pianist, the teacher, the refugee from the Eastern Bloc. She grew up steeped in the ancient Greek classics of The Iliad and The Odyssey and shared them with Michael Dunbar and their children.

When she dies, the boys call their father “the Murderer”. After years away, he returns asking for help to build a bridge on his property. Clay, the quiet smiler, the runner, the boy who sits on the roof, the one who loves Carey and shares the book, The Quarryman with her, is the son who goes.

Zusak draws the female characters with love, respect, admiration and affection, even old neighbour Mrs Chilman, a minor character. Carey is a ground-breaker, an independent, aspiring female jockey.

There is a strong sense of place: the racetrack, The Surrounds and house in Archer Street in the city; Featherton, the town where it all began; and the bridge itself, the overarching metaphor. The writing is uniquely Zusak: idiosyncratic (“cars were stubbed out rather than parked”, “The furniture all was roasted.”); humorous, enigmatic and prophetic.

Bridge of Clay is published by Picador, PanMacmillan Australia. It is a contemporary classic.

Marcus Zusak’s backlist includes: 

The Book Thief

The Messenger

When Dogs Cry

Fighting Ruben Wolfe

Big Stories at Brisbane Writers Festival 2017

Brisbane Writers Festival has had a new lease of life with the appointment of CEO and Artistic Director, Zoe Pollock for the festival’s 55th anniversary. The festival was about “The big stories – and the little ones in between” and the biggest story of them all was probably the recognition of Indigenous literature and creators, particularly the tenth anniversary of Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin award. This was uniquely celebrated as an immersive dramatic and visual performance inside “Angel’s Palace”, a specially constructed “art-tent”, designed by Gordon Hookey.

The opening address was given by Alec Doomadgee, who spoke about “Indigenous knowledge creation”. He showed excerpts from his seminal film Zach’s Ceremony. Alec said that “reading books gives you a real history of the country you’re in”. He uses the arts and culture to tell stories and create change and urged us all to go away and do something for change. My family has something planned …

I was fortunate to moderate a panel session about “Connecting to Place” which explored how three authors create place as a character (or not – as we discovered) in their stories.

Melissa Lukashenko spoke about the significance of land in her beautifully written, award-winning novel Mullumbimby. Ashley Hay let us look inside a special Brisbane house, peopled over time by two vulnerable women whose lives interconnect. Her novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, has just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards. Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel, Skylarking, was one of my best books of 2016 for the Weekend Australian. It is set on a windswept, isolated cape and is a fine piece of writing about friendship between two young women. Kate is destined for big things in the literary world if she continues to write at such a high level.

I also attended a session about the Australian book industry, “Published in Oz”. It was exciting to hear how writing and reading is the biggest art form that people engage with in Australia. 20% of Australians attend a book event annually and Australia has the highest per capita attendance at writers’ festivals in the world. Reading books is the number 1 favourite leisure activity of Australians. Double the number of Australians enjoy reading books to attending sporting events, playing video games or other pursuits. Australia also has the world’s top independent bookseller market.

Another enlightening session was a workshop for adults on visual literacy by James Foley. He has illustrated Sigi Cohen’s, My Dead Bunny, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and other books.

The BWF also hosted “Word Play” an outstanding program for young people. My highlight was hearing Wendy Orr, author of the Nim’s Island series (the genesis of the movies), Peeling the Onion and the masterful historical fantasy based on the Minoan myths of bull-dancing, Dragonfly Song. This novel has also just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards.

Thanks to the organisers of the 2017 BWF and to those involved. There was a very special buzz in Brisbane.