Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
Two women travel to the same point on earth from opposite directions and almost 30 years apart, their journeys, their history and their fate intertwined. Both women are fleeing something traumatic and violent, something they’ve repressed but that is lurking in their subconscious, raising its viper head on occasion, offering glimpses of pain and fear.
In Monica Byrne’s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, the stories of these two women form a narrative of many sorts — a coming of age story, a road novel, a hero’s journey with a desire for salvation.
The novel starts in the near future, when the hub of economic power has shifted and “Africa is the new India, after India became the new America.” Meena, attacked by a snake, flees Kerala for Mumbai from where she decides to travel to Djibouti to find out more about her parents’ death.
Raised by her paternal grandparents, Meena only knows that her parents were medical residents in an Addis Ababa hospital where they were killed while her mother was pregnant with her. Nurses found them and saved the prematurely born baby. The weight of their deaths is something Meena often defines herself by: “as a baby I felt my mother die around me,” she says, convinced that she will find some sense of peace if she finds out more about the person who killed her parents.
Her plan is to travel to Djibouti along the Trail, “a floating pontoon bridge moored just offshore from Mumbai, which spanned the whole Arabian Sea, like a poem, not a physical thing.” Though previously cautioned by her transwoman lover Mohini that “the Trail was all blank sky and faceless sea, the perfect canvas upon which to author [her] own madness,” Meena is certain that this is the road upon which she must travel, especially now that she is suddenly, mysteriously, without Mohini.
Constructed originally as a way to source solar and hydroelectric power, the Trail is a series of scale-like platforms tethered together and floating along the surface of the Arabian Sea, made out of a “conspiracy of ideal materials.” But somehow, it grew sentient, “like a great sea snake,” and “just wants to be left alone.” With a life of its own, “the Trail goes from shore to shore and more people come. They form towns and then entire cities along its length. The city at the end of the tail is used to being thrashed, like the tip of a whip.” It is this “steel dragon” of a bridge over the sea that Meena attempts to traverse in a violent, strange and often hallucinatory journey to understanding.
Parallel to Meena’s narrative is Mariama’s, set perhaps 30 years earlier in a world where the Trail does not yet exist. Mariama is also heading to Addis Ababa but from Mauritiana, across the African continent, as a young child stowaway on a cargo truck. She’s running from a snake too, a sky-blue one. In Senegal Mariama meets a young woman who joins the little caravan, paying for a ride and refusing to answer questions. Calling herself Yemaya, she appears to be from a wealthy family and is “running like she’s being chased.” Yemaya seems to adopt Mariama while they are on the road, teaching her to read and write, introducing her to new foods and ideas. Mariama soon grows to trust Yemaya implicitly, completely and with love so thick that it seems almost inevitable their relationship must feature great tragedy.
But how does Mariama’s story tie into Meena’s? Who are they to each other? Who is the young girl who Meena keeps seeing along the Trail at the “the epitome of madness”? Who is the woman Mariama sees and assumes to be her beloved Yemaya, long lost to her? Byrne tends to both narratives with a great attention to detail, winding each around the other close enough for instances, motifs and images to reflect but never quite touch until the very grisly and fantastic final reveal.
The Girl in the Road is a perfect example of an engaging narrative that features two deeply flawed and often unlikeable protagonists. Neither Meena nor Mariama are sympathetic characters. They carry their unacknowledged baggage and are all the worse off for it. What makes it more interesting is that while Byrne has made an active effort to not write straight white characters, she has also not fallen into the trap of writing ‘safe’ or ‘good’ characters of colour, ones that can cause no offence or do no wrong. Too many white writers take that path in fear of criticism, but Byrne’s taken the risk and done what should be done — she’s written characters of colour that are human — flawed, interesting and not at all ‘safe’. Her characters are all either Indian or African or a mix; they are straight, bisexual, genderqueer; of different socio-economic classes, different religions, different cultures; they speak different languages. Byrne’s version of the future is not the standard Western one, and while she’s attempted including multiple ‘big ideas’ (not all have played out fully and that’s fine), her vision is not conservative in any way either.
There are a lot of things Byrne does unflinchingly — and sex and violence are two of them. The Girl in the Road isn’t a book for the faint-hearted. There are plenty of scenes that disturb and worry yet don’t seem to be shock tactics. Rather, they add complications and a further abrasiveness to the narrative. One particularly disturbing one (that worries even more on a repeated reading), comes in the form of a young woman with her own great burden of trauma, unprocessed and barely acknowledged, attempting to save a child from similar trauma in the future.
This is a narrative about trust and love — maternal love more so than any other. There is a strong presence of maternal deities from different cultures throughout the narrative, the sacred feminine a womb in which this story has been grown — Meenakshi devi, mother Mary, Yemaya the Afro-Cuban deity who is mother goddess and protector of children, and the constant, ever-present yoni.
It has been strange to see this book referred to as dystopian or post-apocalyptic by Western readers and reviewers, when so much of the setting (in India, in Ethiopia) is familiar and contemporary in many ways to a third-world reader. Yes, the book explores climate change but it’s our future extrapolated, not pushed to a single apocalypse. Why, when the centre of power, economics and trade shifts from developed countries is that vision seen to be dystopic? The future Byrne has created would never seem to be a collapsed society to someone living in Karachi.
Ultimately, one reader’s dystopia is another’s reality and Byrne acknowledges this. The Girl in the Road is a clever, vicious snake of a book, deeply, thickly muscled and disturbing; not perfect but beautiful in its own unique way.