In a teaser to her online masterclass on creative writing, author Margaret Atwood reminds us plainly: “People are always coming up with new theories of the novel. But the main rule is: Hold my attention.” All other matters of literary discourse become secondary when you realise that all a book needs to do is to hook and to hold, till the last page does you part.

I thought of this constantly when I read Bridge of Clay by novelist Markus Zusak of the bestseller The Book Thief fame. His new book is an ambitious, affecting family saga, but one that took frustratingly long to pull this reader into its folds.

This is a little heartbreaking because Bridge of Clay, with a fable-like quality, is all heart, infused with a variety of wonderfully moving themes about loyalty, family, love and grief and about building bridges – to take us to people we love, to move from the past and to the present, and to pave a way forward. The book was nearly two decades in the making, Zusak has said and that he struggled with it, especially with chronology and consistency and finding the right voice for the narrator.

Coming of age (not again?)

Some of this struggle shows. Bridge of Clay has a plot weighed down by tragedy upon tragedy, but is dressed in poetic prose, which stays afloat with the help of an army of affectionately written characters.

It is essentially a coming of age tale about five Dunbar boys who live in a chaotic house without grownups, with rules of their own and a gang of animals for company (some of them are very important to the plot) because their father, Michael, abandoned them after being consumed by grief following the slow and painful death of their mother, Penelope.

“Early on, our father was called to the schools, and he was the perfect postwar charlatan: well-dressed, clean-shaven. In control. We’re coping, he’d said, and principals nodded, teachers were fooled; they could never quite see the abyss in him. It was hidden beneath his clothes.

He wasn’t like so many men, who set themselves free with drink, or outbursts and abuse. No, for him it was easier to withdraw, he was there but never there. He sat in the empty garage, with a glass he never drank from. We called him in for dinner, and even Houdini would have been impressed. It was a slow and steady vanishing act.

He left us like that, in increments.”

Bridge of Clay kicks off when Michael, referred to as the “Murderer” for a reason we learn later, walks back in and asks his sons for help to build a bridge. The story presumably plays out somewhere in Australia. Why he left them to fend for themselves and why he wants to build a bridge now are questions that are dutifully answered, memory by memory, by the end of the nearly 600-page book that brims with symbolism and metaphors and existential questions that do not all have answers.

The keeper of secrets

To get there, we must first dip into the story of the dark-haired, determinedly complex Clay, the fourth Dunbar boy of exceptional emotional strength, he who guards a brave secret deep within him as he volunteers to build the bridge. This is his story, about his devastating loyalty to his mother, Penny, and about the girl he fell in love with, Carey.

“The girl was good and green lit:
The clear-eyed Carey Novac,
The boy was the boy with the fire in his eyes.
They loved each other almost like brothers.”

The other captivating character is Matthew, the oldest Dunbar boy, the narrator of the novel. It is his perspective that ties it all together as we criss cross through the messy, violent lives of the young boys and the people around them. If Clay is the emotional core of the story, Matthew is the backbone, the most responsible among the unruly lot of boys, the one who fathers his brothers, studiously trying to keep them out of trouble at school while working jobs to pay the bills after they are left to fend for themselves.

Here, there and everywhere

The book’s chief flaw – its slow, loose and disorienting flow in the first half – meant that even a good hundred pages in, I felt impossibly lost in its many strands that begin and end and jump places and timelines before you can register what happened moments ago. You don’t feel rooted to a physical space that grounds the story and would likely question its premise but the book teases you time and again to allude to a big reveal that could explain the motivations of both Clay and his father.

Bridge of Clay spans several decades with many scattered but compelling subplots. This gives the novel a certain scale and heft but the pacing and stylised prose often feels painfully uneven. But once the fog over the narrative clears up a bit, it’s easy to be charmed by the fact that there is, no doubt, a fair bit to admire in this novel.

Zusak’s universal story of love, death, redemption, broken relationships and what it takes to mend them has a quiet beauty that shines through particularly in the moving backstories. The episodes that pull us closer to the boys’ mother, the piano loving Penelope, and her and Michael’s love story (“..he was almost the perfect other half of Penelope; they were identical and opposite, like designed or destined symmetry”, and later, her losing battle with illness, are deeply stirring and wonderfully written.

“Penny was playing the piano.

She played through the sunrise, she played through our fights. She played through breakfast, and then long past it, and none of us knew the music. Maybe it was a misspent rationale; that when she was playing she wasn’t dying – for we knew it would soon be back again, having swung wire to wire.

There was no point closing the curtains, or locking any of the doors.

It was in there, out there, waiting.

It lived on our front porch.”

Zusak’s prose, reminiscent of The Book Thief, jumps between staccato, choppy, provocative sentences and longer, sparklingly sensitive and vivid portions, a distinctive style which while inspired feels jarring on many occasions here. It is in the latter half, when his voice is coherent and assured, with a comforting layer of cracking humour, that you begin to feel invested in the journey of its characters to the bridge that could make them whole again, to pull off what they believe will be a “miracle, and nothing less”.

I nearly gave up reading the book several times. But I persevered. It would be fair to say that by the end of it I felt somewhat rewarded. The aftertaste certainly feels more satisfying than the hours spent poring over it.

Bridge Of Clay, Markus Zuzak, Doubleday.