Knopf, October, 2018 522 pages
Alternating stories tell the tales of two different generations of the same family. In the past, Penny leaves her communist homeland at age eighteen for a new start in Australia, where she slowly gets her education, meets and falls in love with Michael Dunbar, and has a family of five boys. Now, Michael Dunbar has returned to a house of young men, who call him the Murderer. What happened to this family? Zusak slowly reveals the long progression of cancer through Penny's body, her death, and the tragic aftermath of the family. Michael becomes distracted and can't face the grief, growing increasingly distant, finally leaving home all together. The oldest son and narrator, Matthew, is left holding the bag and raising his brothers, forced to leave school and work fulltime in the process. All of the boys grieve in a different way with the fourth son, Clay, seemingly hit the hardest. He was the closest to his mother and is the keeper of her tales and secrets. Clay develops a romantic relationship with a young female jockey from the neighborhood, who becomes his lifeline. Upon the return of Michael, Clay accepts his estranged father's invitation and joins him in the country constructing a bridge, connecting the past to the present and bringing the family peace and healing.
This is Zusak's first book in ten years following his critically acclaimed best seller and book group darling The Book Thief. Zusak is considered a teen writer, and so this book is labeled "teen", but it really is more of an adult book featuring primarily, though not exclusively, young characters. The writing is intense and dense. Every word of the 522 pages is meant to be there and it reads like poetry. There is much in the way of symbolism that went right over my head and will probably also miss the intended audience. Bridge of Clay will certainly win awards and all the libraries will buy it, yet I don't think it will be enjoyed by teen readers. Zusak maintains the dark mood and setting effectively throughout the book. The story is very sad and almost hopeless, though it ends on somewhat of a healing note. Adult book groups and lovers of literary fiction will find much to delve into and appreciate. I started reading this book at the end of June and finally finished it this morning. I did make it through, but found it to be a bit of a slog. Being more of a family saga, the action meanders back and forth through time and, really, not much happens. There was one big plot surprise towards the end that made me jump, which was cool, although maybe not worth the time invested over all, although, I did make it through, so I must have enjoyed it on some level. Bridge of Clay is a carefully crafted and beautifully worded piece of literature that travels the reader to a very specific time and place. It will be loved and appreciated by adults and probably unread by teens.