You could argue that Zusak has a tendency to overplay the theatrical illumination, as even the act of opening the fridge becomes a physical assault: “From nowhere there was light. It was white and heavy and belted him across the eyes like a football hooligan.” But if The Book Thief was a novel that allowed Death to steal the show, its slightly chaotic, overlong, though brilliantly illuminated follow-up is affirmatively full of life.
Imagery, often repeated and with good reason, showcases Zusak’s talent for capturing an idea or feeling: smiles, during illness, are “hoisted up” or “fell out” involuntarily, a knowing wink is “collegial, cahootsful”, a heart “out of its gate”. Originally disparate threads, interwoven and gradually revealed, weave a tapestry that emerges only more vividly by the page... The “compulsory sense of mischief” sees furious scrums, pile-ups and fist-fights, but it also invites moments of cohesion and a tenderness seldom seen in literature for or about adolescent boys.
Zusak at times writes in such an allusive style that meaning is elusive. After noting its nearly 600 pages, how many readers will be deterred by the first sentence... Stick with it, though, and this tale of five rowdy boys, immigration, abandonment and rehabilitation, proves memorable.
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.
Bridge of Clay, in other words, requires a patience and concentration perhaps at odds with its easy narrative voice. The pace is very slow at times. There is never a sense that each part isn’t necessary for the purpose of the story as a whole, but some of the segments are laborious to read, and some are overworked. In a particularly well-rendered and poignant scene between Michael, the “murderer-to-be”, and his partner, Abbey, the relationship’s breakdown is laid out in fine and distressing detail. Abbey’s courage in speaking is given in heavy and beautifully strained speech. “The strength it took had weakened her, if only momentarily, and she slid back down upon him, her cheek like a stone on his neck.” Unfortunately, that subtlety is undone by the following chapters, which hammer the point home too forcefully, killing the effect.