Tag Archives: Australia

Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak

Bridge of ClayThere were five of them, the Dunbar boys. Their mother had died, their father had left, and they communicated their anguish and fierce love through their fists. Matthew, the oldest, tells the story of how he taped up Clay’s feet so that he could run punishing, barefoot races where Rory cursed at him and tackled him on the track. Meanwhile, Henry piled up gambling wins, and Tommy, the youngest, added one pet after another to his menagerie. They couldn’t seem to finish high school, but they could all play the piano. Their mother had seen to that. She had also soaked them in the words of Homer, just as her father had read the Iliad and the Odyssey to her before he planned her flight from the Nazis of Europe to her new home in Australia.

In his first novel in over a dozen years, Markus Zusak courses through the generations of one family, weaving a web of strings that all find their end in Clay, the sensitive, quiet Dunbar brother, the one who loves his parents’ stories and treasures them up in his heart. Clay, who brutally abuses his body when he runs, fights, and works. His brothers say that he is “in training,” but to what purpose? His brothers don’t even know how much he loves Carey, the new girl who is an apprentice jockey at the downtrodden racetrack near their house, or how he meets her every Saturday night in the middle of a field, chastely exchanging hearts and dreams.

This is a thoroughly male story, and even the wonderful female characters are seen through the eyes of the men, who are honorable, angry, heartbroken, loving, and tough. As Matthew’s account moves backward and forward in time, certain motifs run throughout the book: Homer and racehorses, music and Michelangelo, painting and clothes pegs. The animals all have Greek names, beginning with Hector the cat and ending with the inimitable mule, Achilles. The Monopoly games are epic. Male habits that confound women are brilliantly portrayed, such as talking to one another side by side while looking away into the distance or punching a brother instead of saying, “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” As a matter of fact, the unapologetic level of testosterone is startlingly outside of today’s gender-fluid YA literary norms. Furthermore, this novel deals with far more mature themes than are usually found in teen books, such as terminal illness, marriage, divorce, guilt, and life-changing regret. Death is almost as much a character in this novel as it was in The Book Thief.

Bridge on the PorchI first met Markus Zusak at the ALA convention in Washington, D.C., in 2007, when The Book Thief won a Printz Honor medal. That was a banner year for the Printz reception. The winner was Gene Luen Yang, the first author to win a Printz for a graphic novel, and the honor recipients were Zusak, John Green, Sonya Hartnett, and M.T. Anderson. At that time, the Printz Committee had all of the authors give speeches, so we were agog. Even before that evening, however, the Mock Printz Club from our library— almost all teenage girls— met Markus in the lunchroom, and since all of the seats were taken, he asked  whether he could eat lunch with us on the floor in the stairwell. Um, yes! You have never seen such a group of giddy girls—older and younger—and he was completely kind and chatty. It was the highlight of the conference.

Zusak’s style in Bridge of Clay was beautiful, and I enjoyed all of the story, but the ending slew me. I had no idea of what was coming, so gently and shockingly, and it took me a long time to recover. Everything fell into place, and I just loved those Dunbar boys.

@RHCBEducators

Disclaimer: I read a bound manuscript of this novel, sent to my colleague by the publisher, and ever so generously lent to me first. Bridge of Clay will be published in October, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

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The Midnight Dress, by Karen Foxlee

ImageRose wanders from town to town around Australia, pulling up stakes whenever her artist father falls into the bottle once again. As a result, Rose is tough and owns only a few t-shirts and jeans, bobby pins to keep her curly hair flat to her head, and her treasured journal, her book of words. When she begins school in the latest northern town, she doesn’t want to make any close friends, but chatty, exuberant Pearl finds a way into her heart: Pearl, who wants to live in Paris, loves trashy novels, and flirts with the 30-something owner of the used bookstore. It’s Pearl who convinces her to have the reputed witch, Edie Baker, make her dress for the Harvest Parade. When Rose arrives at Edie’s moldering mansion, she finds more than just an elderly seamstress. Edie tells stories of young love and a hidden cottage while she teaches Rose to sew the most beautiful dress she has ever imagined.

As this novel opens, a young woman has disappeared and is considered to be murdered, and Detective Glass has been called in to investigate. Rose’s shoes were found at the cane plant, and Rose has not been seen since the Harvest Parade. This unfolding mystery is woven throughout the book at the beginning of each chapter, with the action of the story and the investigation coming together at the conclusion. These two threads, plus the story of Edie’s family that she relates to Rose each week, are like the dress they create: bits of midnight-blue taffeta from one ancient gown, black mourning lace from another, pattern pieces cut from historical newspapers, all combining to create something deeper than one piece of cloth, than one straight narrative, could be. It is the skillful twining together of the fabrics, of the stories, that creates the magic.

ImagePerhaps we only see the best of the best, but Australia has some amazing authors. Markus Zusak wrote the awe-inspiring The Book Thief, among others, boldly experimenting with having a book narrated by Death. Now it’s a major movie, so that was a leap worth taking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s cute and sweet. He sat on the floor and ate lunch with the giggling girls in our Printz Club at the ALA convention the year The Book Thief won a Printz honor. ImageMelina Marchetta won loads of awards for her realistic fiction year after year, after which she shocked the book world by turning around and writing some of the most stunning high fantasy I’ve ever read. I am a devoted fan. What is in the water over there? Karen Foxlee’s The Anatomy of Wings was also highly decorated, and The Midnight Dress is lush and dreamy, filled with breathtaking writing that makes the reader go back and read passages again, just for the sound of the words. In the very beginning of the novel, I knew that I was in for pure joy when I read this description of the tide that Rose hears when they first arrive at their new home, the Paradise trailer park:

Rose can hear the ocean: the sudden intake of its breath, as though it has remembered something, something terrible, but finding there is nothing it can do, it breathes out again. (p.3)

I’ll never hear the ocean again without thinking that it’s breathing.

Here is Edie’s description of her mother, Florence, when she was young. Florence’s father was a tailor, and she was an exceptional seamstress.

But Florence, she was different, she knew the mysteries of folding and draping and the pleasant secrets of pin-tucking. [She and her brothers went to the creek, and she was afraid to swim.] When she finally let go of the bank and floated away on the river’s back, it had terrified her but also filled her with awe; the way the world was always leaning someway, draining someway, pulling someway. The tides, the moon rising above the rooftops, the water flowing from the mountains to the sea. (pp. 70-71)

This is not a novel for those who love action stories. Although there is a plot, the value of the story is in the interior journey of the characters. It is a book that revels in the words, in the heat of the rain forest, the secrets of families, and the heartbreak of betrayal. The ending is not as unexpected as I think it was meant to be, but it is satisfying, all the same. It’s a treat for readers who love fine writing. Some particularly offensive profanity, so be aware.

Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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