Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
THE BRIDGE HOME
By Padma Venkatraman
208 pages. Nancy Paulsen Books.
Sisters Viji and Rukku grew up poor, with an abusive father and a mother who could never leave him. But when their father breaks their mother’s arm and hurts Rukku, Viji packs their bags and gets them on a bus that takes them far away from home.
In the city, the runaways meet Muthu and Arul, street children living on a bridge who share their makeshift home with them. The boys teach Viji and Rukku how to survive and become their friends along the way. But when illness puts their lives in danger, Viji has to make a choice that will change their lives forever.
A story that pushed all my buttons
The Bridge Home is told in the form of a letter from 11-year-old Viji to her sister Rukku. Written in the second person, the novel is lovingly crafted, filled with yous and gentle realizations as Viji takes Rukku through the events of their lives. And in the story she weaves, we see the resilience, determination, and spirit that turns their newfound alliance into a family.
Before we go any further, I must admit: I’m weak for stories about found family, so the moment I read the synopsis—and saw the little dog on the sunset-hued cover—I was a goner. But even taking into account this very particular weakness, Padma Venkatraman’s middle-grade debut is stunning.
A journey fueled by love
One of the strengths of The Bridge Home is its superb cast of characters. Despite being the younger of the sisters, Viji is headstrong, clever, and proud, and it’s her decision to leave their abusive household that starts the girls on their journey.
“Amma trusted that if she put up with things, she’d be rewarded with another, better life after she died,” Viji says early in the novel. “It made no sense to me […] If I wanted a better future, I needed to change the life we had. Now.”
But Viji’s priority isn’t herself, but Rukku, who has intellectual and developmental disabilities that are never named. All Viji knows, from her mother, is that “if [Rukku] set foot in a hospital, the doctors might lock [her] away in ‘a mental institution.’” So she believes that it’s her job to protect Rukku from a cruel world—which means keeping her from experiencing it.
As the story progresses, Rukku’s skill, resourcefulness, and generosity slowly come to light. And with a little help from their new friends, Viji learns that her sister has her own skills and talents—and that in order to let Rukku grow, she needs to let her go.
A world full of small kindnesses
The Bridge Home shows that no matter how hard life can be, there’s always room for kindness. Venkatraman makes sure to inject hope and heart into even the most disheartening situations, in the form of generous strangers or a little luck.
But most of these moments come from the family they create with the boys. Muthu and Arul are vivid and real, from the way they speak all the way down to their hair—mischievous Muthu alternately arguing with and standing up for the girls, and Arul taking on the role of a wise older brother. Every dynamic is a breath of fresh air, and I loved all of it.
A fairytale grounded in reality
Another thing I loved is that The Bridge Home is told with the rhythm and cadence of a fairytale, complete with neat story beats and characters who always know the right thing to say. Here, every moment is a Moment—which makes sense when you remember that a young girl is telling this story.
However, what makes the novel most impactful is what it draws from reality. Some descriptions, dialogue, and details will be familiar to a Filipino audience—from the honorifics to the vast divide between the rich and poor—while others are distinctly Indian. But universal elements such as poverty, hunger, abuse, and child exploitation inform and color the story without weighing it down.
Hold your friends close
Before I even read the first page of The Bridge Home, I believed I would be emotionally compromised—and boy, was I right. Venkatraman’s lyrical prose, unforgettable characters, and attention to detail drew me in and kept me engaged, even when I needed to pause reading because of work and travel. I may or may not have teared up a couple of times. And though it’s a novel for young readers, I’ve already recommended it to my friends… and my mom.
Sweet, humorous, and poignant all at once, The Bridge Home is a moving story about the families you choose and the sacrifices you make for them. I wholeheartedly recommend reading it; it won’t take too long. And once you’re done, call up a friend and tell them you love them. Trust me. It’s worth it.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]