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Philip Pullman – The Broken Bridge

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Who am I? Who are you? Do we care?

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 295
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-330-39797-1
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 14th August 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Ginny’s not really sure whether or not she fits in. At sixteen, she’s happy in Wales, has a great relationship with her devoted father, and a fair few friends. But being one of only two black people in her town, she doesn’t feel quite… right. Okay, so she’s not completely black, unlike Andy, because her father is white, but when her skin colour is added to her artistic nature the question of who she is starts to become more prevalent. Yet suddenly this isn’t so important. Her father’s about to bring an unknown brother home. If he’s never told her she has a brother, what else is he hiding, and if she was wondering where she fit in before, where does this leave her now?

The Broken Bridge is a fantastic little novel that, although a YA book, has just as much if not more to offer the adult reader. I’ve read it three times now – as a child, as a teenager, and just yesterday, and each experience has been very different, but this last time had the most impact on me.

Perhaps it’s to do with the book’s age – as in all Pullman’s books, the content is not censored and real issues are confronted, and in the 90s when subjects such as homosexuality and racial diversity weren’t discussed quite so openly, and given that The Broken Bridge was written for teenagers, it is somewhat ahead of its time, or at least it feels as though it is. This is a major reason why I say it offers a lot to adult readers.

The story revolves around the theme of identity. Racial identity, familial identity, identity in the world in the long term. Pullman effectively pits one after the other, showing that everything is just as important – Ginny feeling happy in herself is important, but here’s her brother and her identity in this new set-up is just as important, and hey, look, here are a bunch of questions about her mother and where all her memories of her childhood stem from and what impact do these have on her?

There is the furthering of the theme beyond Ginny, and it touches on her brother, father, and in a rather compelling way her mother, too, but the main focus of course remains on Ginny as she makes mistakes, makes rash but good decisions, and works out who and what she is.

Pullman asks us to consider what makes a family and what is and isn’t ‘right’ in this context. He sets some difficult challenges for the reader – reunions that do not go the way you would expect them to and for their subject are very hard to read, relationships that are full of angst. He challenges the status quo almost to excess when you consider the book as a whole. But it’s a good excess. And, anyway, what is family and what is important? Almost everyone in the book lies somewhat or keeps the truth hidden, but Pullman does let go at the end, explaining everything. It’s particularly unsavoury but a good look at how people view independence differently, and how others can view dependence and routine as important.

And, somewhat obviously, the author takes time to look at racism. He shows how it isn’t always in your face, so to speak, how it can be quiet, how it can be worse depending on the situation, and how sometimes it can be part of a bigger burst of anger.

Lastly, if you are an artist or lover of art, of any kind – not just painting or drawing – you will love the detailing in this book. Pullman doesn’t just inform you about the great artists and about good paintings, he brings to mind the utter pleasure and passion that comes with working out what another is saying through their art, and the sparks, the love, that creators and enthusiasts feel.

The Broken Bridge is one you don’t want to miss. My copy, at least, looks to be very much a children’s book, and as Pullman’s writing is at times quite literary and of that earlier decade, you would be forgiven for starting it and wondering if it’s going to be a satisfying read. But it is, so much.

Mend this bridge – read this book.

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Literary Feline

August 18, 2014, 8:20 pm

I have Pullman’s Dark Materials series, but I haven’t read any of the books.

The Broken Bridge sounds like a great book. I am glad the author takes on the fact that racism isn’t always in your face.

Jennifer

August 19, 2014, 1:53 am

This sounds wonderful. I haven’t read any of his books outside The Golden Compass series but I loved those so intensely… he seems so superbly tuned to the emotions of young people, I imagine he tackles these tough subjects in a way that is really on target for teens. What a great recommendation, one to look for.

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