Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne is a remarkable book. It's near-future science fiction set in India, Ethiopia and involving two journeys: one across (northern) Africa, the other across the Arabian Sea. The settings alone should tell you that it is not a run of the mill science fiction novel.
Meena, a young woman living in a futuristic Mumbai, wakes up with five snake bites on her chest. She doesn't know how or why, but she must flee India and return to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. Having long heard about The Trail -- an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea -- she embarks on foot on this forbidden bridge, with its own subculture and rules. What awaits her in Ethiopia is unclear; she's hoping the journey will illuminate it for her.

Mariama, a girl from a different time, is on a quest of her own. After witnessing her mother's rape, she joins up with a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. She meets Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. Yemaya tells Mariama of Ethiopia, where revolution is brewing and life will be better. Mariama hopes against hope that it offers much more than Yemaya ever promised.

As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama's fates will entwine in ways that are profoundly moving and shocking to the core. Vividly imagined and artfully told, written with stunning clarity and deep emotion, The Girl in the Road is a true tour de force.
I need to say up front that I don't know very much about Africa and a little bit more about India, so I am not someone who would notice any small factual/cultural errors. There didn't seem to be anything huge and glaring and the small details felt authentic, but if others disagree, please let me know in the comments. I wasn't actually sure until I got to the end that the author is American (obviously, I could've googled, but didn't), so the level of detail and the amount of research she obviously put in is impressive. But as always, there are potential issues with an outsider writing about any culture. I will note that none of the characters were white, and also that both bisexual and trans identities were also featured. However, the rest of this review won't be dealing with these issues.

The Girl in the Road follows two protagonists, both incredibly unreliable, for different reasons. Meena is a mentally ill Indian woman in her late twenties, living in the late 2060s. After a crisis drives her from her home, she makes her way to Mumbai. In Mumbai she becomes infatuated with the Trail, a string of floating pontoons which collect wave energy from the Arabian sea and stretch from just off the coast of Mumbai to Djibouti, Ethiopia. Still wanting to get away from the forces chasing her, she sets out across the Trail. Since her story is told in first person and partly due to her illness (my guess was that she was bipolar but that wasn't completely clear), Meena's story unravels slowly and not strictly chronologically. One quickly realises that we can't trust everything she tells us and begins to question her decisions as well. It's a fascinating mode of story telling.

Mariama is a young girl (8 or 10 at the start, I think) who suddenly finds she has to fend for herself. She attaches herself to two men transporting oil to Ethiopia, who look after her. Her story is told in first and second person, with Mariama talking to Yemaya, a woman who joins the oil convoy not long after Mariama herself does. Partly because of her age, and partly because of her isolated and unpleasant upbringing (she was a slave), Mariama is also an unreliable narrator, but in a different way. Her point of view was, I think, more decipherable and at times more understandable as well. (There was one scene that I think some people will struggle with. It's a spoiler, but if you're interested, the author blogs about it here.) With Mariama, the reader's interpretation of her situation is, sometiems, more important than her own.

It took me a while to work out how the two storylines were connected. I won't spoil it here, because the slow unravelling of the story is an important part of the journey, but it wasn't obvious at first how they were placed temporally with respect to each other. But eventually it becomes apparent and certain events play out with a terrible inevitability that we, the reader, cannot help to stop. It was a beautifully woven tale.

Not only were the stories beautifully woven together, but similar themes — like the unusual snake in both story lines — intertwined both stories, binding them together as much as actual events do. Byrne has a wonderful turn of phrase, always choosing the best words to convey layers of meaning and always push the narrative forwards. It was a pleasure to read. It was complicated, but not too much so. (Although the Epilogue confused me. I suspect it might make more sense upon re-reading...)

I very strongly recommend this book to everyone. Fans of science fiction should enjoy this very different view of a not-too-distant future. There is also an element of magical realism — and a sort of dream-like quality — for fantasy fans who may not like straight science fiction. But above all, it's an exquisitely written book that I will be recommending to everyone.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2014, Crown
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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