Making the transition

On the Welsh coastal path © C A Lovegrove 2013

The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman.
Young Picador, revised edition 2004 (1990).

‘You’re interested in painting?’
‘It’s the only thing—’ 
‘It’s not the only thing. It’s not even the most important thing.’ 
‘What . . .’ Ginny still couldn’t speak properly. ‘What is the most important thing?’ 
There was a long, long silence.

Chapter 14

Ginny Howard’s mother was from Haiti, and it’s from her that Ginny apparently inherits her artistic talents. She now lives with her widowed father in a Welsh village near the sea, and for a sixteen-year-old of mixed descent that isn’t easy.

Come the summer holidays after her exams and some of the mysteries concerning her mother and family start to emerge, upsetting the sensitive but determined teenager at that crucial period when she is making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

Cardigan Bay estuary © C A Lovegrove 2022

Pont Doredig, ‘broken bridge’ in English, is both a fictional place that Ginny sees as significant and a metaphor for the disjunct that can happen when an adolescent starts to question all she believes about her origins and about her place both within her family and the community she’s part of. She lives with her father Tony Howard in a settlement not unlike Llanbedr, Pullman’s former childhood home close to a river estuary and sand dunes harbouring a church, and believes her mother died when Ginny was born. But her father has been economical with the truth, and as revelations start emerging with the visit of a social worker she recalls disjointed memories of when she was young and starts wondering at their significance.

“Coming-of-age”, “teenage-angst”, “identity-crisis” – yes, these are all appropriate labels to pin on this novel, but they only convey part of what Pullman is about. This is also about a sense of place: the northern coast of Cardigan Bay, south of Harlech, with its uneasy mix of Welsh speakers and incomers, set in a picturesque but haunting landscape.

This too is about what it is to be an artist, with your peculiar personal viewpoint to express, somehow, in an unspoken language that not everyone may understand. As Pullman himself confirms, “In this book I was really writing about my own teenage years in that part of the world, and my discovery of the visual arts, and my love of that landscape.”

His narrative skill is evident throughout, drawing the reader onwards, and there is much vivid characterisation and convincing dialogue. For fans of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and his Sally Lockhart series there is even a hint of the supernatural suggested, curious perhaps for an avowed atheist but fairly convincingly worked in.

He is unafraid of addressing issues around racial prejudice and sexual orientation, and of touching on domestic abuse, but he never forgets that this is a thriller and that narrative comes first. In this tortured and claustrophobic novel teenage feelings of alienation and isolation are captured well but, true to life, not every matter is resolved; yet there is more than a glimmer of hope beckoning at the end of the tunnel.

And Ginny is perhaps beginning to have an inkling of what that “most important thing” might be.

Following a recent reread this is an adapted and expanded review (originally of a different edition, Macmillan Children’s Books, 1998) first published here 7th July 2013.

23 thoughts on “Making the transition

    1. Pullman was brought up in this area and went to school in Harlech and so can be guaranteed to capture the general feel of the place in the late 50s and early 60s; I don’t expect it changed all that much in the thirty years before he came to write this, and I suspect (only from cursory trips up this coast) that much the same applies now, more than twenty years on.

      By the way, Joan Aiken wrote a novel which featured this area, or one very like it, The Whispering Mountain set in an alternate Victorian Wales. Except there’s no Queen Victoria. I’m sure you’ve come across it!


  1. Reblogged this on Kate Shrewsday and commented:
    If you are a chain-reader, Chris is the blogger for you. His incisive reviews get to the heart of whether a book is a decent read, and tells you precisely why, warts and all. How he reads so widely, and seems to make so many inspired choices, is beyond me. Suffice to say my reading list has trebled since becoming a regular at Calmgrove.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the photo you used to illustrate this review . . . enticing, mysterious, haunting, and just a bit claustrophobic.

    I’m here via Kate’s reblog. I see exactly why she’s a fan.


    1. Yes, thank you! I’ve just posted a reply on Kate’s blog about the photo! It’s on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, one of a series of leafy tunnels along a stretch by the beach at Newport. I hoped it would prove enigmatic enough to draw a reader in!

      And, in addition, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is now part of the Wales Coast Path , and so this long-distance walking route would take you past this leafy tunnel and on through some scenes featured in this novel!


  3. I loved this book. I was especially pleased with how well Pullman wrote from the female perspective, and from the perspective of someone who feels “other” (different race or what-have-you). Books like this make me feel good about YA fiction.


    1. You’re quite right, of course, and I was a bit remiss in not expanding on these aspects. Despite the bad press Pullman sometimes get from critics with a different ideological outlook, his empathy for his main characters is an outstanding feature of his fiction.


    1. Good hunting, Gert – this shows an author able to deal with contemporary issues in a real world setting; no daemons but a hint of Haitian voodoo injected into the story; and an insight into how a young adult would be understandably confused and upset by secrets and lies.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s so important, to reflect those issues within a credible narrative without the reader feeling they’re being preached to or battered around the head (figuratively, of course!). Pullman does it well here.


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