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BOOK REVIEW: “The Girl in the Road” by Monica Byrne

9780804138840_custom-2db3dd196e9404af7d78ed7129bbccff56252bf3-s6-c30Reviewed for the Desi Writers’ Lounge blog.


Publisher’s Blurb: Stunningly original and wildly inventive, The Girl in the Road melds the influences of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Erin Morgenstern for a dazzling debut. 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.

Hardcover, 323 pages
Published May 20th 2014 by Crown
ISBN: 0804138842 (ISBN13: 9780804138840)

When I started reading Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road, I would keep getting the book’s name wrong, reflexively calling it “The Girl on the Road” whenever I mentioned it in my head or to another person, because I kept assuming it was a book about an epic journey from point A to point B, and nothing more. But I soon understood what it meant that the eponymous girl was in the road, tumbled violently to the ground, prey to serpents both imaginary and corporeal, and to the oblivious onslaught of fateful trucks blinded by dust.

Before getting to the human heart of the novel, it is perfectly understandable that most readers will first of all be intrigued by the unusualness of the author’s choice of setting and characters. The novel takes place entirely in Africa, India and the Arabian Sea, and its main characters are Indians and Africans – a rarity in science fiction and fantasy, and a surprise coming from a white American author. It is to Byrne’s credit that she skillfully avoids falling prey to the overexoticization that colours most white authors’ depictions of non-Western characters. Byrne feels strongly about bridging the ethnic and gender gaps in Western literature, a desire she wrote eloquently about in a recent article for The Atlantic. “In my heart, I asked Ende and Tolkien and Herbert: Did it ever even occur to you to write a hero who didn’t look like you? To use your privilege to humanize and valorize everyone, instead of just yourself? … To write a white woman as my hero in a 21st-century story felt cowardly in the extreme—not only in terms of literary ambition, but in moral terms.”

There is an unmistakable absence of whiteness in The Girl in the Road; the novel is set in a future where the balance of political and economic power has shifted east – “Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt.” The people of the world are speaking English, Hindi and Mandarin in varying blends. Sexual identities flow freely up and down the Kinsey scale, and the transcendence of ethnic and religious boundaries does not raise eyebrows as it once did. But not all is so peachy in this strange future – the seas are higher and rising, and there are drowned communities all over the world, and documentaries show “ghost-blue underwater footage of boardwalks, shopping malls, office parks, houses, grocery kiosks, playgrounds – now empty, and slowly becoming the territory of fish, corals, and thin aquatic spiders.”

Still, The Girl in the Road is not a dystopian novel by any means, regardless of our expectations in an age of popular fiction inundated by futuristic “girl battles the system” novels. It may appear to start out that way, as a fast-paced escape sequence unfurls before us in the first chapter, as Meena races through a sci-fi version of Mumbai, in the wake of her lover’s murder, with a mysterious Ethiopian terrorist organization hot on her heels – or so she is convinced. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear that there is no chase. There is only a very long walk, a journey across the sea from Mumbai to Djibouti – on-foot, which is possible because a major corporation has built an ingenious, energy-generating Trail across the Arabian Sea. Byrne goes into elaborate detail explaining how the Trail works, as well as all the various gadgets and marvels of technology that Meena has to take with her to survive the walk.

Meena’s story is told in alternating chapters with that of a young African girl named Mariama, a runaway who joins a caravan of truckers on their way to Addis Ababa. It is initially unclear how Meena’s and Mariama’s stories are connected, but within a few chapters, the relative temporal setting of each becomes clear. The reveals come slowly and in reverse order in The Girl in the Road, as is the author’s design, but the patience you have to put into the novel to understand what it all means certainly pays off in the end. The final moments of the novel are astonishingly brutal, and will break your heart in profound and unexpected ways.

The futuristic world in which The Girl in the Road takes place may appear to be the novel’s major defining characteristic, but it is really just – as Meena remembers her lover once cautioning her about the Trail – “the perfect canvas upon which to author [the characters’] madness.” Ultimately, it is a novel about the repercussions of codependent trust abused and broken, about motherless girls and their search for a womb to call home. And as the events of the novel unfold, first in opposite directions and then crashing mercilessly together, you feel like you’re in the road too. Powerless to stop any of it.

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