Okay... So I think I've just found one of my new favourite books. You know that feeling, where you finish and you just want to turn around and start reading all over again? It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it's breathtaking.
This is by the author of the super-successful The Book Thief. I liked that book very much, so when I saw this in the bookstore while I had a book voucher burning a hole in my pocket, I picked it up. And you know what? I liked it even more than that other book.
Interestingly, I didn't love this book right from the start. It took me quite a while to get into, and unusually, it took me almost a week to read too. But once I settled into the narrative style, and the fractured nature of the storytelling, well... it's well worth that initial struggle.
Bridge of Clay is about a family, the Dunbars. There are five sons, and at the beginning of the novel, they are living alone on the outskirts of Sydney, their mother dead and their father gone, location unknown. They are a rowdy bunch, fighting and scrapping and allowing their pets to pretty much run the household - even the old mule who isn't supposed to be inside, but somehow manages to get in whenever no one is looking.
The story is narrated by the oldest of these boys, Matthew, but the story isn't his, it's his brother Clay's. And it's his mother's. And his father's. And even the girl next door's, the girl Clay falls in love with.
It's a story of grief and love and of forgiveness and about building a bridge. It's about brothers and fathers and sons. It's about first love, and true love.
And it's beautiful.
But it isn't an easy read. The different stories unfold together, in beautifully written bite-sized chunks so no part is revealed quickly or in a linear way. The five brothers begin as one messy, snarling mess of boys and it takes some time before they become distinct, individual characters. And Matthew, the eldest, the one telling the story, takes the longest to get to know. I didn't actually feel like I got a handle on him until right toward the end of the book.
The style of writing initially felt distancing - it was like reading through a layer of gauze - but by the end, my heart was held firmly in the story's vice. Not everyone is going to like the style. It's heavy on metaphor and the descriptions, while beautiful, are sometimes too long-winded. The writing is often choppy and obscure. The whole book feels, at least to begin with, like a puzzle that needs piecing together.
There are references to other books, particularly The Oddysey and The Illiad, and a book about Michaelangelo called The Quarryman and this story mirrors themes and ideas from all three, but not in any way that's simple to follow or recognize.
But it's worth the effort. Oh boy, is it worth the effort! It's one I know I will come back to again and I'll be interested to see if the experience of reading it a second time is different, if some of the things I struggled with this time will be clearer the second time through.
I think I will be recommending this to everyone I know for a while, so I'll shut up about it here for now... Just go and read it. I want to have someone to talk to about how good it is.
But don't just listen to me. Here's the blurb:
At the center of the Dunbar family is Clay, a boy who will build a bridge—for his family, for his past, for greatness, for his sins, for a miracle.
The question is, how far is Clay willing to go? And how much can he overcome?