Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Bridge of Clay

Go To

Unconventional family saga by Australian writer Markus Zusak.

Five Dunbar brothers grow up alone in a racing district of an unnamed Australian city. Their mother Penny, a Polish immigrant, has died, and their father Michael has left them. One day, however, the father comes back to ask his sons to help him build a bridge. The second youngest, Clay, agrees, even though other brothers view it as betrayal.


This work provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Following Penny's death, Michael is becoming more and more absent, finally leaving them, and other adults, like school counselor, are pretty much clueless. And their elderly neighbour, Mrs Chilman, while she comes in from time to time to patch them up, basically believes teenagers are quite competent on their own, as in her times boys of similar age would be sent to fight in World War II.
  • Arc Words: A lot, especially connected with water, such as "in the tide of Dunbar past", "on the waters still to come" and "spoils of freedom".
  • Big Brother Instinct: Matthew towards his younger brothers, especially the two youngest, Clay and Tommy.
  • Burn Baby Burn: Dunbar brothers finally burn their parents' mattress that's been left on an abandoned field behind their house — and which is connected with Clay's tragic love.
  • Advertisement:
  • Children Do the Housework: The Dunbar brothers basically raise themselves, which also means that they need to do all the household chores themselves.
  • Delinquents: Penny is offered a teaching job at Hyperno High, mostly because she was the only student-teacher who did not run away. And she gets individual remedial classes with the worst of them.
  • Disappeared Dad: Michael Dunbar to his sons. And Michael's father (he was a firefighter who was killed in a bush fire).
  • Double-Meaning Title: As the author himself explains in the foreword, "clay" means material, as well as one of the brothers (Clay is short for Clayton).
  • Dustbin School: Hyperno High, the worst school in the city, where Penny gets her teaching job.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Dunbars. Their mother has died, their father has left them and they are left to fend on their own, even if Matthew is barely 18 at that time.
  • Enthusiastic Newbie Teacher: Claudia is a new literature teacher who was also assigned the role of the school counsellor. While we don't see her much in her lessons, she takes the role of the counsellor (which nobody else wanted) very earnestly and really wants to help Rory and Clay cope with their mother's death and their father's disappearance. With Rory she is helpless, as the only thing he wants is to drop out of school and get some serious job—but Clay appreciates her very much.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Matthew is eclectic — reasonable, responsible, not prone to any outbursts; Henry sanguine — most cheerful of the family, talkative and very good at haggling; Rory choleric — hard-working (that is, once he is expelled from school and gets "real" work), rude, loves drinking and brawling; Clay melancholic — introverted, emotional, talks very little; and Tommy phlegmatic — thoughtful, sympathetic and compassionate.
  • Getting Suspended Is Awesome: Rory hates school with all his heart and does things like throwing grapes at a teacher to get suspended. While suspended, he goes with Matthew to work, which he likes very much — and when Rory finally gets expelled, he promptly finds a job and is finally happy.
  • Happily Married: Michael and Penny Dunbar. That is, until Penny dies. Later, Matthew and Claudia (even though they wait 11 years to actually get married).
  • High-School Hustler: Henry. Smart, sarcastic, easy-going, always looking for a way to make some money. He uses Clay's training routine to collect bets from other teenagers.
  • How Dad Met Mom: An important part of Dunbars' Back Story, involving a piano, a shop owner with atrocious handwriting and three incompetent piano men.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: Penelope Lesciuszko (later Penny Dunbar) emigrates to Australia from communist Poland.
  • Imposed Handicap Training: Clay's a sprinter and his training routine is running up the stairs of an apartment block. With his younger brother Tommy on his back. And with his older brother Henry shouting abuse at him.
  • Jerk Jock: Juvenile boxer Jimmy Hartnell, who decides to bully Matthew Dunbar because of his piano lessons (to his mind, a boy who plays the piano, even forced by his mother, must be gay).
  • Language Barrier: Penny at first mangles English and speaks with a very heavy Polish accent.
  • Married Too Young: Michael Dunbar gets married to his teenage love Abbey Hanley while they are still at university. She soon comes to regret it.
  • Missing Mom: Penelope's mother died in childbirth.
  • Mum Looks Like a Sister: After getting a short haircut, Penny looks just like one of Dunbar boys.
  • Ominous Hair Loss: Penny Dunbar is dying of cancer and undergoing chemo. She starts losing her beautiful blonde hair and in a very poignant scene asks her husband and five sons to cut it very short, because she can't stand losing whole strands of it.
  • Parental Abandonment: The Dunbar brothers have been abandoned by their father.
  • Parents as People: Both Michael and Penny have their own lives before and besides their five sons. And while they try really hard to be good parents, they are often overwhelmed.
  • Promotion to Parent: When Penny dies and Michael leaves his sons, the oldes, Matthew, becomes the head of the family.
  • School Is for Losers: Rory's attitude. He does everything to get suspended, is finally expelled (much to his rejoicing) and immediately goes to work.
  • Serious Business: Horse Racing for Carey Novac, who is an apprentice jockey (and a daughter and sister of jockeys).
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sibling Rivalry: Rory and Henry (the second and the third son, respectively) always fight over everything.
  • Unnamed Parent: We nevel learn the names of Penny's mother and Michael's father.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Or rather teacher and a former student/student's brother.
  • The Team: Five Dunbar brothers together. Growing up on their own, they solve their problems together.
    • The Leader: Matthew, the oldest, looking after the rest of his brothers. Within the book referred to as the breadwinner, the reliable one.
    • The Lancer: Henry, smart, sarcastic, from a very young age involved in money-making schemes. Referred to as the money maker.
    • The Big Guy: Rory. Although physically not bigger than his brothers, he loves brawling, is suspended several times and finally drops out of school at the earliest possible moment. Referred to as the human ball and chain.
    • The Smart Guy: Clay. Intelligent, masters bridge-building just by reading several books, loves stories. Referred to as the smiler.
    • The Heart: Tommy. The youngest of the brothers, loves animals (and later becomes a social worker). Referred to as the pet collector.
  • Their First Time:
    • Shown with Abby and Matthew. Basically, she was the driving force, invited him to her place and guided him. Which later comes up as one of her complaints when she decides to leave him.
    • And then there is Clay and Carey's first time, fully spontaneous after they've been together for a long time. Tragically, it is also their last time, as the girl dies on the very next morning as an indirect consequence of their love-making.
  • Training from Hell: Clay's running practice is brutal - running up the stairs in a tower block, with his younger brother on his back.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Penny gets one when she starts losing hair due to chemo. She asks her sons and husband to do it.
  • Unusual Pets for Unusual People: Dunbars are not a typical family and their pets include: a cat, a dog, a goldfish, a pigeon and a mule. Named Hector, Rosy, Agamemnon, Telemachus and Achilles.