When you are a heavy audio listener, there are small details that make you a little too excited — a well-placed musical cue, a superbly executed sound effect, and particularly rare and noteworthy, an author who is the perfect narrator for their own work. I’m delighted to have discovered an example of the latter in Padma Venkatraman, author and narrator of The Bridge Home. And thank goodness, for this particular title, notable for its spare and beautiful language describing the desperation and suffering of children trying to survive on the streets, demands a superlatively delicate and thoughtful performance. Venkatraman delivers.
Viji, eleven, and her older sister Rukku, who is twelve and has developmental delays, have run away in the middle of the night to the streets of Chennai after their father’s heretofore cruel verbal abuse of the girls finally turns physical. Already impoverished before their escape, the girls have very little to survive on, which all too soon turns to nothing. Small kindnesses from concerned strangers can take the pair only so far, and soon they turn to a decaying bridge for shelter. There they meet two homeless boys, Muthi and Arul, with whom they become fast friends and who teach them how to scrape out an existence selling trash scavenged from the city’s garbage heaps. They even adopt a dog into their haphazard family – the loyal Kutti, beloved by all four but especially Rukku. While Muthi’s optimism, Viji’s cleverness, Arul’s steadfastness, and Rukku’s hardworking nature take the foursome far through many obstacles, it is only a matter of time before monsoon season arrives, and with it the threat of illness. Viji is forced to make impossibly difficult decisions in pursuit of the safety and health of her sister and friends.
The trials faced by the children in this story are difficult to contemplate, but Venkatraman’s measured and emotionally present narration strikes just the right tone to underscore the story’s seriousness. Her tone, which evokes pity without any hint of condescension, brings out the humanity and bravery of the children through their struggles as well as their moments of joy. The novel’s epistolary style — the story is revealed in a series of letters written from Viji to Rukku — makes it particularly well-suited to audio. There are moments where Viji breaks from her recounting to speak directly to Rukku that are breathtakingly poignant and painful. I am also pleased that, as in the book, the book’s glossary was at the beginning of the production, which aided in comprehension of terms that may be unfamiliar to some listeners. One small hitch listeners should be prepared for is that the volume on the audio is somewhat variable – while Venkatraman’s employment of whispering is highly effective as a performative device, the volume was not balanced well to account for it and I found myself turning the volume up and down frequently as I listened, especially if I was anywhere with ambient sound, like the car or even at home if the AC came on. Even so, this audio is an excellent recommendation for any listener looking for emotional, devastating realistic fiction beautifully told.
The Bridge Home, written by Padma Venkatraman, read by Padma Venkatraman. 4 hours, 33 minutes. Listening Library, 2019.
Darla Salva Cruz is the Youth Services Consultant for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in New York. She is a current member of ALSC, YALSA and REFORMA. She has served on the 2018 Odyssey Committee, is currently serving on Quicklists Consulting Committee, and reviews for School Library Journal. Darla has been a voracious audio listener since at least 8 years old, when she remembers listening to Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt on repeat all summer long. @broughtabook