Fiction: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

-Words by Josh Mcloughlin 

“Writing is always difficult”. Thirteen years after his best-selling teen novel The Book Thief, Markus Zusak is at least honest about the follow-up. As a brave attempt to break into the serious fiction market, however, Bridge of Clay flounders on the rock of its own immaturity.

The novel follows the five wild Dunbar brothers as they live alone in Sydney on a diet of crap food, cheap beer, and scuffles with local boys. One day their absent Father returns, fresh from an outback exile following the death of the boys’ mother Penelope, and soliciting one of his sons to help him build a bridge. Clay, the mysterious one, accepts; the other brothers consider this an unpardonable treason.

It’s an incredulous plot whose execution is thoroughly dispiriting. The narrator (Matthew, the eldest Dunbar brother) is a smug Netflix voiceover taking you back ‘before the beginning’, where the ever-growing stack of chummy ‘let me tell you about’s’ and ‘in many ways, I guess it was true’s’, give the embarrassing impression of a writer hitching his skirts firmly in the direction of a slimy TV executive during a Walkabout happy hour.

Zusak’s primary literary weapon seems to be an aversion to forming proper sentences, and the excessively overused staccato of three micro sentences becomes intolerable before the first chapter is out. If you’re expecting, say, a paragraph, or the author to spend time interrogating an idea or psyche, you will be disappointed.

Instead, Zusak breaks the rule on page 1 of How to Write A Novel: ‘show don’t tell’. Bridge of Clay is also packed with redundancies: “His paralysed moustache was camped firmly between nose and mouth”. Where else would it be? This lack of concentration is endemic. At times, it reads like stream of consciousness—not a modernist psychomachia, mind you, but a rambling mess: “I’m sure it’s because I was glad. Glad. Glad is a stupid-seeming word”. Is it really?

In huffing and puffing in a ceaseless effort to do clever things with beginnings and endings, Zusak never really gets out of the blocks or to the point. It may pass for young fiction, but since Bridge of Clay demands to be judged as a ‘proper’ book, it is on its own terms that it must be judged a failure.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, Doubleday, 592pp, £18.99


Non-fiction: Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

-Words by Zoe Southcott

Brief Answers to the Big Questions, by the late and brilliant cosmologist/physicist Stephen Hawking, is a sparkling composite of insights gleaned from an array of Hawking’s essays, lectures, and speeches.

Throughout his astonishing career, Stephen Hawking worked passionately at unravelling life’s greatest mysteries and has deeply enriched our understanding of the universe. Whilst Hawking’s theoretical work explored the furthest reaches of space and time, he also believed that science and tech should be utilised optimally to address the most urgent issues we face here on Earth –  issues such as climate change and declining natural resources.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions begins with a foreword by Eddie Redmayne and an introduction by Nobel Laureate Kip Thorne and concludes with a touching afterword by Hawking’s daughter, Lucy.  The body of Brief Answers consists of Hawking’s personal response to the myriad questions that his works have elicited over the years. Questions such as, Is there a God? How did it all begin?, Is there other intelligent life in the universe?, Can we predict the future?, What is inside a black hole?, Is time travel possible?, Will we survive on Earth?, How do we shape the future? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? And, Should we colonise space?

Hawking deftly describes the rapid advance of human civilisation, and describes a future in which generations yet to come will increasingly depend on tech and science to provide a way in which the human race can survive, and even flourish; ‘How will we feed an ever-growing population?’, he writes, ‘Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change?… Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.’

Hawking’s clear and compelling writing style reflects his intention to instruct and educate us as lay people. Hawking writes that physics should not be an inaccessible domain, despite the fact that a physics professorship for all is not an attainable goal; ‘To do research on the fundamental laws that govern the universe would require a commitment of time that most people don’t have’. Hawking has remedied this problem in the writing of Brief Answers to Big Questions –  a cutting edge, accessible, instructive, and captivating read.

Hawking was a bright and witty writer with a powerful vision for the future.  Brief Answers to the Big Questions should be considered essential reading for any anyone interested in science.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking,  John Murray, 256pp, £14.99

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