Oh, Markus

The emergence of Australia’s best, brightest writer, Markus Zusak: author of “The Book Thief”

Only ever written one fan letter; I was 39 at the time. That’s okay, I’m not proud of it, but I couldn’t help myself. You see, I read these slim young adult books about a boy and his brother. They made me cry, made me feel, made me sad and sorry and made my heart bleed with the whole damn beauty and poetry of the story. Then, a novel about cards dealt, and another about a girl who nicked books. You’ve probably read that one. This author slayed me from the first page of his first 5 books every time. Though not the latest, number 6, the long-awaited Bridge of Clay.

Reading Markus Zusak is like being inside a train wreck as it happens, but being so interested in what is going on around you that you won’t get out, can’t get out; can’t free yourself from the exquisite words to make a meal or go to the bathroom or sleep until you’ve finished.

THE FIRST TRAIN WRECK

The Underdog was Markus’s first published work. The slim young adult book introduced the character of a boy who I fell in love with in three chapters. It was sad, it was sweet and it was something from a writer who wrote the way I wanted to write. There were words imbued with such melancholy and glorious prose that I revelled in reading it. There were metaphors juxtaposing things that you never expected to go together, but that you could understand seamlessly. The Underdog was the first of a trilogy of Cameron and Ruben Wolfe brothers books.

THE SECOND TRAIN WRECK OF READING

In 2000 Markus Zusak penned his second young adult book. Fighting Ruben Wolfe was twice as good as the first. On the first page, two brothers see a girl. Both of them “watch her, longing, breathing, being.” And I’m sold, hit to the guts with longing, which happens to be my favourite emotion in any book, movie or real life situation. I long for longing; I live for longing. In the second last paragraph of page 1, the protagonist says:

“Then there’s only the sickness I feel from looking at legs I can’t touch, or lips that don’t smile at me. Or hips that don’t reach for me. And hearts that don’t beat for me.”

Can you feel that cadence, that poetry of wanting? I could feel it and was lost in the language. Plunging into the book, I couldn’t stop until I finished; even when my small children whined that they were starving because it was eight o’clock and I hadn’t started dinner yet. I’d been too busy feeling empathy with Cameron again.

THE THIRD TRAIN WRECK OF GOOD READING

In 2001, the author released When Dogs Cry. I have 2 copies of this book, including one signed copy, complete with a glorious letter gifted from Markus Zusak on the first page…but more on that later.

We’re still with Cameron and Rube Wolfe, but my reader’s/writer’s beating heart is still with Cam; though this is still a young adult novel and I’ve never read any other young adult novels that I liked from any other author.

“The truth, however, was painful. It was a truth that told me with a scratching internal brutality that I was me, and that winning wasn’t natural for me. It had to be fought for, in the echoes and trodden footprints of my mind. In a way, I had to scavenge for moments of alrightness.”

Again, that was only page 1. As a mum in my 30’s looking after a young family, I felt I had to scavenge like a hungry dog for okay moments too. This was a kick to the guts. Obviously, I was sold with the ‘brothers’ book 3 as well.

THE FOURTH TRAIN WRECK OF GREAT READING

People rave about the sort of books they love. Publishers know their stuff, booksellers too, as well as those who work in bookshops. In 2002, my husband strolled into one of the big bookstores and asked for a really good read. The book had just been released. A surprisingly fresh piece of fiction that was enjoyed by everyone who got their clammy, eagre reading paws on it. Publishers and booksellers raved. That book was The Messenger.

That’s what it was titled in Australia. In the U.S. Markus Zusak’s 4th novel is called: I Am the Messenger. In it, we meet a no-hoper, a loser with a capital L. But we just as easily fall for Ed Kennedy as we did for Markus’s earlier antiheroes. Ed’s a complacent guy who’s going nowhere with an unroadworthy taxi loaded by a brick and brick full of low self-esteem.

Still, in Zusak’s first adult novel, Ed is easy to like and even easier to love. All the way through, I turned every page yearning for the messenger to win.

With such glowing recommendations, my husband brought home a copy. I devoured it in hours. Then, naturally, I re-read the ending of The Messenger, because that’s what I do after finishing a beloved read. It gives me twice the joy that way.

THE FIFTH PHENOMENAL TRAIN WRECK: LOVED BY KIDS + ADULTS

The Book Thief rocked the world, beginning with Death and a beloved brother’s death on a train. We went on a lyrical journey imbued with sadness and saving. What can I say, I adored the colours; the narration was fresh, even though a fresh view on death sounds creepy? The words were beautiful, the characters intense and woven with such artistry and care, that it made me weep.

A book so wonderful is an indulgence. A rarity, The Book Thief was an unforgettable find that alters the way you feel when reading it and whenever you think of it afterwards.

Markus Zusak Author Q and A

What does Markus Zusak need to start a book?

A beginning, an end, plus the title, then, “ideas that feel right to you.”

What’s my favourite quote from The Book Thief?

“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and hope I have made them right.”

Something Markus Zusak said that makes you feel good?

“What I love are stories. Stories are what make us who we are.”

What did Mr Zusak say on books?

“You know you’re reading something that isn’t true, but you believe it when you’re in it.”

And it doesn’t get better than that.

THE SIXTH TRAIN WRECK- THE NEW TRAIN WRECK

Bridge of Clay is the book that made Markus Zusak utterly despondent.

A volume he’d tried to write for a wretched 20 years, and managed in 13.

A complicated novel; where the first page was rewritten 1000 times.

Zusak was on his umpteenth deadline extension but still went over by years.

Markus had 120,000 loose pieces of paper with sections of writing that needed to be inserted into the text of Bridge of Clay.

His publisher says it is the: “most anticipated book of the decade.”

A dreadful struggle, not made easy by millions of fans wanting a new read.

I didn’t like the first page. Before I’d even got my own copy, my daughter told me she didn’t either. Not even the first 25 pages, or the first 40. It seems as if every word was hand-picked to be too perfect; as if it had been written by an angel.

Too ethereal, the first pages of Bridge of Clay are so lyrical that the words float about, in wisps of clouds blowing away, but never leading anywhere or touching ground.

Overwritten; over edited.

It hurts to admit it.

It hurts because, as MZ said, the truth is painful.

It’s hard to get through.

But, it gets better; and better and wow, it drives away like a bullet train.

Again, I’m wrecked by the words, the glorious golden Markus Zusak words.

By page 50, I’m sailing.

Page 100, I am flying.

Page 200, I feel Clay’s pain like it’s personal.

By page 300, I soar into the heavens of a past I can believe in.

By page 400, I’m almost sad because there are only another 179 pages to go.

Couldn’t wait to finish Bridge of Clay, but I wanted to savour it as well.

Oh, Markus, you created something extraordinary.

A fiction that is layered, is nuanced, and worth the wait.

Bridge of Clay is a return to brilliant boys and sibling disagreements that demonstrate brotherly love.

I enjoyed Markus’s 6th novel so much I took it to read while waiting in the doctor’s surgery. When they called my name I was disappointed to close the book; resentful that I got in on time.

That was a first; a new level of book-loving.

They say The Book Thief was a story with the power to change someone’s life. Bridge of Clay has changed mine.

It has made me understand boys better.

My 2 older brothers used to fight. I hated watching, it made me ache to witness the divide of violence when I loved them both.

I’m a teacher listening to constant complaints of younger brothers who’ve been bashed by older brothers. I also see the same older brothers protect their younger siblings from a fight with someone else, even if it means getting into big trouble. It seems like a contradiction.

Teaching in primary schools, I’ve seen ugly fist fights that make me feel physically sick. It’s over, the boys have been separated and I’m writing out the incident details when I look up and they are smiling…at each other. Reunited as best friends, they rationalise the punch-up with no animosity. I found this incomprehensible.

How could they feel like that when they’ve only just finished beating the crap from each other?

I’ve seen men best friends tell each other to f off; call each other the c-word or a top combo of cursing and insults, only to regard it as a sign of deep affection.

I’ve seen young men fight, get over it in minutes, then go on drinking at the bar together.

Girls and women don’t get over battles so easily; we can sulk for days and stew for weeks.

Guys with ‘testosterone in training’ must link rough physical behaviour with love early on; especially with brothers and what Australians call mates.

Do boys who get stuck in this volatile stage, connecting violence and hostility with affection, go on to force and abuse women in relationships?

Do some guys never gain the maturity to sever that tie and become less aggressive adults?

Bridge of Clay has allowed me to understand how boys can be insulting and intimidating, yet fiercely protective of those they are closest to at the same time.

I abhor violence and threatening behaviour, yet I adore all the Dunbar boys despite it. Somehow, I even feel like I know them. They feel like a family when most novels don’t do family so honestly or so well. That’s another first.

Oh, I almost forgot my one and only fan letter. I wasn’t as gushy as a music fan in her teens putting posters on the wall, but The Book Thief moved me so much I had to write to the author.

I received an old-fashioned parcel back in the mail. Markus had sent me When Dog’s Cry. My hands were shaking as I opened the YA fiction. On the first page was a letter. It said that this was the author’s least favourite book, but that if he hadn’t written it, a vital step to The Book Thief would have been missed.

Now I was gushing. He made a tiny mistake and apologised for covering it up with Liquid Paper. He used 6 exclamation marks when I was told real writers never use any. He wished me best writing, only it came out wriling because he forgot to cross the t. He said thank you in all caps, another no-no for budding writers. But, I loved every singular bit of his letter, especially the mistakes and the large K in Markus. I read it over and over, like a 14-year-old girl with a crush.

I include a portion, only to prove it’s true. This man’s literature and the way it evolved is all the more compelling because I want to write as sadly beautiful and beautifully sad as he does.

I’m still waiting to do that. Until I do I can read and re-read Bridge of Clay, and get carried away, despite everything, with Markus Zusak’s latest train wreck of a book.

Is ‘Bridge of Clay’ worth reading?

Unquestionably yes.

Get a copy.

Buy it.

Revel in it.

Knock yourself out.

Swim in its pages.

I know with Bridge of Clay

Zusak must have both hated

his words and loved them,

but I know in my heart of good

reading hearts that he has

also made them right.