The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road
When I first learned how to analyze stories, my teacher taught us Gustav Freytag's Pyramid. A story opens with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and finished with a dénouement. Graphically, the plot forms a lovely triangle. The more stories I read, however, the less this model works. It definitely doesn't work for Monica Byrne's stunning The Girl in the Road. If I had to map out the plot of this one, it would end up looking like a spiral.

Byrne drops us right into the middle of things with Meena. Meena is running away from what she believes is an assassination attempt. She makes her way, under the radar (tough to do in 2068 India), to Mumbai. Along the way, we get clear signs that Meena is not a reliable narrator. She tells us that she has manic phases, paranoia, and unresolved issues from her childhood. And she's started to hallucinate a barefoot girl in a hijab. The only one that can keep her on an even keel is her girlfriend, Mohini, but Mohini is conspicuously absent as Meena travels north.

Meena is not the only troubled protagonist in The Girl in the Road. Mariama is a very young girl who has just run away from her mother's hut after seeking a blue snake (similar to the gold one Meena says she saw). She has the unbelievable luck to run into two men who won't immediately take advantage of her. Together—along with a woman who calls herself Yemaya—Mariama and the oil truckers head east from Nouakchott, Mauritania, to the fabled Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Meena decides to go West, also to Addis Ababa. Meena explains the draw of the city thusly:
Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt. (106*)
Addis Ababa is the center of it all, even though it's not the safest place for anyone. From Mumbai, she heads out on the "Trail"—a miraculous new machine that harnesses energy from waves. It's highly illegal to walk on the Trail, but that hasn't stopped anyone. The Trail isn't easy. It's constantly in motion, plus there's the sun, the salt water, the lack of food, and the other people on the Trail to make it even more dangerous. At times, Meena faces the same sorts of hardships that Pi faced in Yann Martel's The Life of Pi.

And, like The Life of Pi, things get a bit mystical once the physical hardships have started to take their toll. For Meena, she equates her journey along the Trail to traveling through a series of interconnected chambers, a Hindu pilgrimage towards one's most deeply wished desire. Mariama comes to see Yemaya as a goddess come to earth. The woman, who renamed herself for a West African orisha, dazzles everyone around her. Without a mother or anyone else to care for her, Mariama gravitates to her. Yemaya becomes her whole world.

As the novel continues, the parallels between Meena and Mariama stack up: the snakes, the quests for a mother, the affinity with languages, their jealousy, the shared pain in their solar plexus. There are even words that keep popping up in their stories, like saha. Mariama hears the word as she leaves Nouakchott. Meena hears it in a hallucination. Eventually, it is revealed that saha is a Sanskrit word with multiple meanings. It can mean "powerful." It can also mean "let us be together."

As I read, too, I saw connections to The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson. Yemaya is one of the names of the orisha—goddess—from the same pantheon as the one who runs through The Salt Roads the way that Yemaya (as mother goddess and sea goddess) runs through The Girl in the Road. To return to the idea of the spiral, I pictured the sort of spiral that collapses in on itself only to immediately start circling back out. As the lines of the spiral draw closer to the center, the resonances between Mariama and Meena became ever more pronounced.

The Girl in the Road becomes ever more dreamlike, until nearly the of the book. At the end of The Life of Pi, we are presented with a choice between the literal truth and story that's a lot more heroic and entertaining. Unlike The Life of Pi, however, a "witness for empiricism" (281) is there to probe Meena about her story of the assassination. Her story crumbles as she confronts the trauma she was running from all along.

When I closed the book after the epilogue, I had to start off into space for a while while the impressions and connections The Girl in the Road had stirred up for me. The book is beautifully written, with layers I'm sure I haven't identified and understood yet. This book is one of the best I've read this year. But be warned, readers, there are disturbing subjects in The Girl in the Road. This is not an easy book to read.

* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by Crown Publishers.

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