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'The Book Thief' author's tender tale of brotherly love and strife

Fiction: Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak, Doubleday, hardback, 592 pages, €24.83

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Long wait: Zusak had the idea for Bridge of Clay when he was 19, long before The Book Thief

Long wait: Zusak had the idea for Bridge of Clay when he was 19, long before The Book Thief

Long wait: Zusak had the idea for Bridge of Clay when he was 19, long before The Book Thief

Before The Book Thief made him a multimillion-selling international publishing phenomenon, a 19-year-old Markus Zusak had an idea for a book. It had something to do with a young man called Clayton building a bridge, but beyond that he couldn't say much more. One thing he did envisage was the shortening to Clayton to Clay so that the title 'Bridge of Clay', and all that could be read into that, could exist.

US rock musician Warren Zevon always said that once he'd come up with title of a song, it sort of wrote itself, but the process was obviously a little more complicated for Zusak, whose sixth novel arrives 13 years after The Book Thief. You don't have to travel too far into the heart of this sprawling family saga to get a sense of why that might have been the case.

We are introduced to the Dunbar family. At first glance it is made up of five brothers, each more perplexing and messier than the next, who live together somewhere on the east coast of Australia. Matthew, our narrator, is the oldest and is telling the story of his clan on a banged-up old Remington typewriter. Rory is the most unruly one. The youngest, Tommy, is the animal-lover while Henry is the wise guy. They bicker and shove and josh in a way that can only mean they love and trust each other deeply.

Also co-habiting with the boys is a small but vital menagerie of animals, including a pigeon called Telemachus, a goldfish called Agamemnon, and a very special mule called Achilles. (If you purchase the special edition, you will be treated to an insert of "collectible stickers" of these characters).

We also know that their father, known among the boys as The Murderer, has walked back in through their door to say that he is living some distance away by a river and intends to build a bridge over it. Clay is the only brother who leaves to join him in this crudely metaphorical narrative endeavour, an act that causes some resentment in the others.

But what they don't know, and what Zusak teases out in a series of masterfully calibrated chapters, is the complicated plumbing of yesteryear that brings all families, not just the Dunbars, to a given point in time. Clay and The Murderer (real name Michael) share something between them, a knowledge of something that burdens them both but is also providing space for empathy.

And surprise, surprise, the single most potent presence in this tale about young untethered men trying to come to terms with themselves, is their mother, Penelope (another Homeric reference).

She has passed away, we know this from the get-go; but we must venture deep into the undergrowth of this wonderful novel in order to discover just what happened to her precisely and the ripples of effect that resulted in what Matthew is describing currently.

The ways that this is all depicted in intermittent chapters set in the past is deeply poignant, so much so that some of it you might just behold through wet eyes.

Because Zusak is able to skip back so gracefully to times past (even "before the beginning"), all these characters emerge as being wonderfully rounded, forged with their own faded Polaroids of romance, tragedy, and those funny little coincidences that place one person before another at a key junction in life.

All this is presented in language that seems to have been written down and then had a third of its words excavated (perhaps a symptom of a decade of deliberating over the thing). The one-clause paragraphs and gaps in the grammar do take a little getting used to, but there is also so much economic beauty here that gives scenes of crushing heartbreak, wild antics and tenderness a powerfully understated zest that can really blindside you.

If it takes Zusak another 13 years to write his next novel and the results end up as muscular and involving as this, then so be it.

Indo Review