Author: Monica Byrne
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: August 2014
You will spend the entire book wondering who the girl in the road is, and the bland title is one of the only flaws in this unique work. (Even the snake on the cover serves a purpose, unlike other similar cover art.) This piece of speculative fiction is a road trip tale that feels entirely new, especially to this Western reader who finds all things Africa and India exotic and foreign.
Of the two main characters, twenty-ish Meena takes the slight lead as the central figure, who is jolted into a new path by situations that are not at first clear. Her road is a wonder of science called The Trail, a thin wave energy-harvesting bridge over the ocean made up of small sections, or “scales” (there’s that snake again). She attempts a pilgrimage from India to Ethiopia, a dangerous task for anyone, but especially for the rash. Thankfully the book’s science, which feels just real enough, is able to keep her outfitted with all the cool gizmos just such a traveler would need. A large part of the book’s intrigue is reading about how she survives both physically and psychologically.
On another continent, the even younger Mariama runs away from home and joins a small caravan headed toward Ethiopia with questionable goods. Her mind is fluid and her story unsettling because she is so helpless, yet wide-eyed with wonder, in a dangerous land. She meets a particular woman who plays a huge role in her life, and whose identity even crosses into Meena’s story (the novel neatly flips back and forth between the two protagonists). And here is where any hope of explaining plot breaks down, because so much of the action is interpreted as experienced by the reader. The girls/women get sucked into dreamlike states during some parts of their journey, which are classic Journey of the Hero tunnel material where the goal is to understand oneself and come out transformed. Realities rise and fall, things come apart then coalesce. The characters spiral toward that inevitable intersection.
The book is not always easy to experience because it largely asks, Where do we go from the point of trauma? It is intense and colorful and original, like a fever dream where all the character and place names have a tangible history. The breadth of cultures covered and topics touched on is a wonder. I had to read the book over the course of a few weeks, but I could see the value in shacking up with it for just a few days. It’s dense but rewarding, and the end seems to both cohere and explode simultaneously. Final plot details are debatable (though the author does have concrete answers of her own) yet, thankfully, the emotional questions opened up like wounds are skillfully handled and explored, even if some are left unhealed.
Give this one a shot, if you have the time. There’s an ocean to explore.