The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads
Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads, now being re-released by Open Road Media, reads like a blend of novel and poem. Over the course of the book we meet three women who have been touched by the influence of Ezili. Mer is a slave in Haiti sometime before the revolution in 1789. Lemer is a dancer in 1840s Paris and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire. Meritet is a prostitute in third century Alexandria. Ezili is caught between them. As Hopkinson spins out their stories, we learn more about how all four of these (for lack of a better word) entities are connected across time and space.

Mer has the most time on stage in The Salt Roads. Mer is Ginen, but now works in the cane fields and provides medical care for the other enslaved Africans on the plantation. She is bitter and angry, yet she provides tender care for her fellow captives. There is an especially moving and heartbreaking scene midway through The Salt Roads when Mer talks a new captive out of suicide by starvation by explaining the "facts of life" to him. But in spite of her exhaustion and frustration, Mer still listens to the quiet voices of her goddess: Lasirèn, one of the facets of Ezili. Lasirén asks her to re-open the salt roads, the paths that the goddess uses to communicate with her people. As if this wasn't enough of a task for Mer, the woman also has to contend with the growing revolutionary violence all around her.

"Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining," by Édouard Manet
Jeanne Duval, also known as Lemer, lives a life almost as desperate as Mer's. Jeanne trades her beauty—and sometimes her body—for money and favors from wealthy Parisian whites. She attracts the attention of the poet Charles Baudelaire and becomes his mistress. (Jeanne is an actual historical figure. Her portrait is to the left.) Jeanne is not as overtly sympathetic than Mer, but she is no less trapped by her circumstances than Mer. As a woman of African decent, the daughter of a prostitute, a dancer, Jeanne has nothing to fall back on if her "relationships" fail. She has to cling to others for her clothes, food, and shelter. Later, she also has to rely on her men to care for her as she dies from syphilis. I worried about her the entire time I was reading about her, because she was always just a few days from destitution.

The last woman to feel Ezili's touch is Meritet. We don't learn as much about her as we do about Mer or Jeanne. Of the three, however, she is the one filled with the most vitality. You could even say she's happy most of the time. Ezili's touch leads her to leave her position in Alexandria to travel to Aelia Capitolina (the Roman name for Jerusalem) to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Her pilgrimage leads to a mystical experience in the Judean desert.

In between the chapters about the three woman, Ezili finds herself alternately trapped between the three and in an unknown space where she sees other facets of herself: Hathor, Erzulie, the Virgin Mary, Lasirèn. All are motherly goddesses of love. It was fascinating to learn more about the names scattered through the text and see the historical and theological connections Hopkinson drew. Ezili's passages are also the most poetic. Some pages are just single words. Others are hypnotic passages about the in-between space Ezili inhabits.

You cannot read The Salt Roads quickly. Ezili's sections require you to slow down to fully absorb the meaning. The three women seem different from each other, but the connections and similarities become apparent as the book goes on. The Salt Roads is a startling read (and not just because of the scenes of lesbian love). It's nominally a work of fantasy and historical fiction, but the language is leagues beyond the simple prose of most of the genres.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. This edition will be released 27 January 2015.

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