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The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson.

November 28, 2013

The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson.  New York : Warner Books, 2003.

 GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

A powerful speculative novel about African people in different times and places living in hopeless situations finding ways to live with grace.

 Nalo Hopkinson is one of my favorite authors, and The Salt Roads is the most ambitious and moving of her novels that I have read.  In it, she brings together the suffering of peoples from Africa in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean in the mid-eighteenth century, the parlors of Paris in the nineteenth century and the deserts of the Middle East in the fourth century.  Connecting them is Ezili, a timeless spirit with her own personality who can enter individuals and “ride them.”  Hopkinson is at her most creative with this spirit. The spirit’s words and thoughts are printed in bold type, and they flow without the usual constrictions of grammar.  Both the spirit and the individuals often find themselves facing hopelessness, but unknowingly they contribute to more freedom for the Ginen or Africans.

 The Salt Roads is not a gentle or happy book.  It probes the question of why bad things happen even to innocent people.  It is very sensual book with physical descriptions of peoples working in the sugar fields and dancing in the forest, dying and giving birth.  Readers feel the heat of the sun or the cold of the chilling winds. There is lots of explicit sexuality, sometimes between a man and a woman and sometimes between two women.  It is not a book for those who can be easily shocked.

 In writing a story of African peoples, Hopkinson focuses on three women.  Jeanne is the mulatto mistress of a French poet in Paris in the nineteenth century.  Thais is a prostitute in forth-century Alexandria who runs away to Palestine.  After a series of misadventures, she is found by a monk in the desert and named St. Mary of Egypt.  My favorite was Mer, a slave and doctress to the other slaves on a plantation in Santa Domingo in the mid-1700s years before the slave revolts that would create Haiti.  Conditions there were so bad that few slaves survived more than ten years of working in the sugar cane.  Hopkinson provides a gripping picture of the slave community, its unrest, and the brutality with which any hint of rebellion was put down.  Hopkinson gives a particularly strong picture of slavery at its worst and the divisions and tensions among the slaves.  I know too little about the circumstances other women on whom Hopkinson focuses to gage their accuracy, but her account of slavery is clearly borne out by scholarly research.

Hopkinson frequently uses Caribbean words and concepts. I usually found it easy to understand what was happening by the context, but her book sent me to learn more about the spirits and the history she includes.  Catholic sources do name a St. Mary of Egypt who is portrayed as being dark skinned.  Like Ezili, her images blend into that of a “dusky” Madonna.  I suspect I would have liked this book even better if I had known more about Caribbean life and spirituality.

 I strongly recommend this book to all who enjoy speculative fiction that is deep and full of meaning.  Those not willing to grapple with physicality and suffering should read one of Hopkinson’s lighter books—such as her The New Moon’s Arms. (See my review )

This book was read as part of the More Diverse Universe hosted  by Aarti @ Booklust featuring Speculative Fiction by People of Color.

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