An old woman comes to the door, wearing a dress the color of young leaves.
She knows my cowrie-shell mouth.
She puts her hand on the little girl’s shoulder and closes her eyes and I know I’ve found who I’m looking for, and so the act is done and can’t be taken back, so I say nothing, and just wait and listen to the surf, the calls of men, the cries of children, the laughter of women, course up and down the waterways.
Then she opens her eyes and nods to me and says to the little girl,
HASSANIYYA: You must invite our guest in, Saha.
These are the final words of The Girl in the Road, but they could very easily be the first. There is a strongly cyclical feel to Monica Byrne’s debut novel; the narrative retreats further into the past even as the characters move forward in time, motifs appear and reappear in slightly altered form, and events repeat themselves in dreamlike fashion. At one point we learn that India is known as the “Land of Experience” because “in India, everything that could happen under the sun had already happened.” The Girl in the Road resounds with echoes of a similar infinity. It is an ambitious novel, and one that is unlikely to prove universally palatable. For me, though, it worked against all odds.
The plot is almost too complex to condense. The Girl in the Road takes place in the waning days of the 21st century, and gestures towards a world order in which Asia and Africa have become the centers of power, industry, and culture. The trappings of science fiction are present everywhere—printable clothing, portable ovens that transform any organic matter into food—but the novel is at heart a quest story that traces the parallel journeys of two women. Meena has been bitten by a snake in an apparent assassination attempt and decides to leave India via the Trail—a kind of energy-harvesting pontoon that runs from Mumbai to Djibouti. Mariama, a child slave in West Africa, flees her home following her own serpentine encounter, quickly falling in with a group of oil merchants heading for Ethiopia. In true quest fashion, though, the physical treks that Meena and Mariama make are just as much internal journeys of self-discovery, and revelations about the two women—their pasts, their futures, the scars they carry—come thick and fast as the novel draws to a close.
Meena and Mariama’s stories do eventually converge, as we know they must, and a moderately experienced reader will likely have an inkling of where the novel is heading. The pleasure is not in the twist but in its execution. Similarly, the causal connections between the two stories are ultimately less interesting than the thematic ones—though, in a novel like this, it is at times difficult to separate the two. I said earlier that the novel has a cyclical structure, but “spiral” might be the more accurate word; words and motifs we first encounter in passing recur with greater frequency and urgency as the novel draws tighter and tighter circles around its conclusion. On the level of pacing, it is exquisite. There is, however, a lot going on in The Girl in the Road, and the novel at times suffers from an overabundance of ideas; everything feels connected, but it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of the connections as they proliferate without ever being fully explicated. To wit, the novel takes as its backdrop what looks like a new iteration of neoimperialism, but Byrne is largely content to treat India’s exploitation of Ethiopia as ambience rather than subject matter. To a certain extent, this creates a satisfying impression of depth; we get the sense that there is a real (if unfamiliar) world simmering just below the novel’s surface. On the other hand, it adds an additional layer of complexity to an already complex novel—and one that the author seems unwilling to explore in the detail it likely deserves.
Byrne’s real interest (and the novel’s real strength) lies in the story’s mythic underpinnings. This is a novel about origins—motherhood in particular. Images of the divine, elemental female are everywhere—Mary, Meenakshi, Yemaya, and even Lucy are mentioned—though the novel itself is no straightforward celebration of the sacred feminine. And then, of course, there is the snake, carrying with it all of its Judeo-Christian connotations. Byrne’s twist on original sin is distinctly feminist in flavor; her Eves are wounded—by the world, by men, by their inheritance as women—and wound others in revenge. That they hurt themselves in the process at times feels inevitable; there is a gut-wrenching moment late in the novel when Meena, hearing Mariama’s account of an early childhood trauma, thinks to herself, “This is all the final chamber is, was, and ever will be….[this experience] on repeat, forever. That was the end of her life.” And yet the novel’s final pages are almost incandescent with hope; Meena encounters a girl wearing a hijab and jean shorts who “yells back” when men yell at her, and we feel that somehow, in this fusion of cultures, something will change for the better.
Byrne’s prose is the perfect vehicle for such a story. It is almost incantatory in its cadences—in its ability to slip from the mundane to the grisly to the ecstatic and back again with a kind of long-short pulse. It is at once hypnotic and frenetic, lyrical in its rhythms and brashly modern in diction. To take an example:
A horn sounds in the distance. I look south. The train is coming, saffron yellow, with its silver emblem, the Lion of Sarnath, and its triad of lights, the top one shining like a third eye.
I have thirty seconds to end this story.
There is an energy to this writing that will not appeal to everyone. Nor, as I said earlier, will the novel itself. The Girl in the Road does not invite casual reading; it is loud, overflowing, and demanding. It asks you to see narrative logic in signs and symbols rather than events and actions. It requires that you surrender yourself to the rhythm of the story and the pull of the language. I did, and it was intoxicating.