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The Girl in the Road, by Monica Bryne.

May 9, 2015

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Bryne.  Broadway Books (2015),  Paperback, 352 pages.

FAVORITE  5 stars

Compelling speculative fiction about two women, each on her own road, one crossing Africa from the Pacific to Ethiopia and the other walking across the Arabian Sea from India.

The book is set in the near future where new technologies are widespread and a larger spectrum of sexualities are practiced. There have been some shifts in global populations and domination. Climate change and competition over energy abound. This is not a dyspeptic world, as the author notes, but “The problems of 2068 are just the problems of 2015, writ large.”

Two dark-skinned women engage in their separate quests, each with adventures along the way. Both their mothers have died. Meena is an Indian woman in her twenties who leaves southern India heading for Ethiopia where her parents had been murdered. Nursing snake bites on her solar plexus, she walks “the Trail,” an innovative bridge of metal hydrogen spanning from Mumbai to Djibouti.(pictured on the book’s cover). Her journey is long and often boring, leaving her to her memories and imagination. She comes to consider her encounters on the Trail as the chambers of a temple leading her to Enlightenment. Marianna is only a child of seven when she crosses the Africa continent, also headed to Ethiopia and accompanied part of the way by a woman who seems to be a goddess who mothers her. She carries a pain “between her heart and her stomach” from a bit of a snake she ate. When she reaches Abba Addis, she stays, grows up and falls in love. Their journeys are told in alternating chapters and seem unconnected until words and images from one narrative start appearing in the other. Clues build about the connection between women, as chilling possibilities surface about who they really are and what is happening.

Monica Bryne is a young American woman who studied biochemistry at Wellesley and in graduate school at M.I.T.   Her background provided her with the basic knowledge and patterns of thinking to create the technology in this book. Her blurb at GOODREADS notes that she has “a pilot’s license (from when she wanted to be an astronaut), a yoga teacher certification (from when she realized she didn’t want to be an astronaut), and one very-marked-up passport (from when she realized she was an artist).”   Biologically Bryne is not a person of color, although she has deliberately chosen to write about characters that are.  She explains that she tried to write the novel with a white American woman as the central character, but she realized that part of what she wanted to do was to rewrite her readers’ default image of who could be a hero. She chose to write about heroes who were women and brown.  She thoroughly researched her characters’ backgrounds and the places they live while being sensitive and aware of her own identity as white and privileged. There simply were no white people in the book.

Every time I introduced an incidental character, because I was raised in a white supremacy, my instinct was to make it a white man. And in each case I asked myself, “Is there any reason it has to be?” and there’s never an answer other than “it feels right,” which is the smooth-talking patriarchy in a double-breasted suit. So, fuck him. The doctor in South Sudan? African woman. The tourists in Mumbai? Chinese. And so on.

Obviously this was a controversial decision, one which may annoy some readers.  Personally, I think she did a fine job of writing about those from cultures and ethnicities not her own. About halfway through the book, I stopped reading to look up who she was and if she was a woman of color because I thought she might be from reading her text.   Her goal is “writing the world I both see and want to see, and so, helping to create it.”

Aside from Bryne doing the best she can to depict worlds not her own, ethnic differences are simply not the main focus of the novel. When cultural and social conflicts exist, they are not between native and western groups. For example, it is Indians who are threatening to dominate in Ethiopia and demeaning the Africans who live there. Although she does not share their ethnicity, Bryne relates something of her own story through Meena and Mariama. She sees the book as a “translation” of losing her own mother to illness and death when she was the age of Mariama. Themes of abandonment, betrayal and guilt run through her life are central to theirs, giving the book a universal quality.

Bryne has written an enjoyable, important story of adventure featuring strong, likable women of color as heroes. Her book has a strong element of suspense and is hard to put down. Her characters are unique and fascinating.  She handles her complicated plot with easy grace. As much as I was impressed with her writing, however, I was also mildly disturbed by it.  There was more sexuality than I would have chosen, but at least it was never presented in a titillating or arousing manner.  Reading it, I sometimes felt old and left behind by future generations.  I was also troubled by the last section of the book.  Neither woman is the totally positive character she initially seems.  Especially for Meena, hallucinations and the reality of the story blur, intentionally but, for me, unpleasantly.  Bryne handles the uncertainty she has created well, but I was ready for Subu, the man on the Trail whose task it was to “witness for empiricism” and make sure travelers were still sane.  But he is only able to bring back rationality briefly.  Although I admire Bryne’s skill, I craved a neater ending than the one she gave me. The increased uncertainty of the last section gives depth to the book, but readers  should be prepared for a wild and disconcerting ride.

This is a superb book that I strongly recommend, especially to those who like speculative fiction that has diverse characters and raises complex questions.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. maamej permalink
    May 9, 2015 6:26 pm

    This book sounds quite unusual, I wonder what writers & readers of colour think of it. I can certainly relate to the author’s desire to turn things around and not write according to dominant paradigms.

    • May 10, 2015 9:34 am

      I wonder, too. At least is very self-conscious about her choices, and I think the book works. Being white can present real dilemmas, as I am sure you know.

  2. May 11, 2015 10:59 am

    This sounds really good. I’ll take a look for it.

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