vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar,
que es el morir
— Jorge Manrique
Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us.
– Emmi Itarante, Memory of Water
Imagine a colossal tropical aquarium of scented water, brimming with life and colour; a jewelry box of histories, feuds, cultures, dramas and revolutions that to an outsider are as alien as they are vibrant. Now freeze this image, discard the serenity of the outside and fire two bullets into the aquarium from opposite ends. Let your mind feel the rush of the bullets punching air into balletic but undeniable tunnels of spume, and see the aquatic world anew as the fractures shred outwards from the entry holes and warp the crystalizing fragments of glass into the delicate mirror of a collapsing moment.
That’s a little like the experience of following the two protagonists of The Girl in the Road through an extraordinary debut novel that blends genres into a rich, sensuous broth shot through with as much violence as empathy.
Which is not to say the novel is filled with bloodshed, although blood certainly is shed and certain moments will turn the stomachs of the sensitive, but rather that the novel’s emotional scope spans the speculative futures of African and Indian peoples through a lens that is as bound to be poetic as it is to be honest and unflinching, especially when it comes to the cultural collateral damage inflicted on women in those regions. That the writing is feminist and therefore unavoidably angry does not narrow the focus of a book filled with wonder at the possibilities of desire, gender and belief. And whilst sadness does flow freely through the writing, alongside occasional spikes of hatred, one comes away from the story alight with appreciation for what it might be to experience these places and their myriad peoples, past, present and potential.
The Girl In The Road is the twin story of two women and the journeys they make to find themselves, through time and memory as well as over land and sea. One of them, Mariama, will travel across the breadth of the African continent from West to East and the other, Meena, will walk the arc of the Trail out of Mumbai in the opposite direction. Both paths will eventually conclude in Ethiopia, birthplace of mankind, and this is no more coincidence than that the Trail (an inspired, ocean-spanning mix of bridge, endless pontoon and hydropower source) might remind one from space of a glistening umbilical, linking Indians to their symbolic and literal mothers.
Tenser sequences aside, the novel draws its ebullient strength and joie de vivre from emotional piquancy and the sensory wealth of its two journeys rather than particularly dynamic plotting, so it’s the quality of Byrne’s character writing that must sustain interest through some of the slower pacing, and this it generally does. Any perceived lags in the pacing are more than made up for by Byrne’s keen ability, moving dreamlike through the minds of her protagonists, to fashion memorable images (Meena suspended in darkness beneath the stormy ocean in the smart bubble of her tent; Mariama borne along by a shining throng, resplendent and transcendent with faith, beneath the African day), reflections and bursts of repressed experience that can strike an unprepared reader with vicious speed. After one has been bitten a few times by this acuity, one feels much more at home with the swaying pace of the writing and, perhaps, a little more open to the sensory richness on offer therein.
Whether or not you come away from the novel with a pressing need to try Indian sweets, as I did, you will surely come away impressed by a book as sweet, as strange and as strong as this. Not only is it incredibly deft, engrossing and thought-provoking for a first novel, it has no qualms about shaping that emotional span and heft into a form of speculative fiction that showed me what I wanted and needed from science fiction and fantasy writing: to paraphrase Byrne describing the Trail, imaginative technology “like a poem, not a physical thing.”
In its refusal of genres and boundaries, its celebration of ancient heritage and a riotous profusion of languages, religions, smells and tastes, and above all in its heartfelt, humorous appraisal of the shocking beauty of life, all scars and suffering included, The Girl in the Road is profoundly generous and humane writing; wise without posturing. I have no doubt that it is quite simply one of the best books written this year.