The Girl in the Road (Book Review)

by krstaten

I initially selected The Girl in the Road as my next book based primarily on the cover. When I saw a blurb of praise by Neil Gaiman, I decided I had made a good choice. When I recognized an allusion to Middle Earth lore on page two, I knew Monica Byrne must be an author after my own heart. And when I realized how delightfully diverse this book is, rich in culture with a wide array of LGBT characters, I was eager to get into the story. I’m glad I did.

I won’t say by any means that this novel is without flaws. However, with a prosaic style that sometimes borders on poetry and a structure that echoes a Haruki Murakami novel, Byrne draws the reader into a book that is diverse, intelligent, and observant, all with real-world political and cultural undercurrents and philosophical implications.

The Girl in the Road, set just a few decades into the future, follows two distinct but intertwined stories. One is that of Mariama, a young slave girl turned cross-Saharan hitchhiker. The other is that of Meena, a grown woman, orphaned before birth, on her trek across the Trail—a transoceanic pathway from India to Africa—trying to make her way to the central chamber of a mystery she doesn’t fully understand. Both are bound for Ethiopia, both looking for they-don’t-quite-know-what, but each is in a different time. Each girl’s story is told with a distinct voice and style, and as the stories get closer to merging (and as Meena lives more and more inside her own mind), the styles begin to meld together seamlessly.

More impressively, the narrative strings together undercurrents of LGBT acceptance, the rapid advancement of technology, exploration of sexuality, global climate change, and cross-culture hostility, without making them the forefront of the story. Much like in our current reality, these are all issues that within the book exist in our peripheral, changing the world at large while individuals’ worlds are rocked by much smaller-scale, largely internal battles.

The downside to this, of course, is that as a reader we don’t always understand exactly what those undercurrents mean. The technology, for example, is skimmed over in a way that fits in seamlessly with the narrative and the world in which it exists but sometimes leaves the reader wondering, what does that thing do exactly?

There is also one scene in particular that has caused a lot of controversy. I hate to give spoilers in a review, but I feel like this one deserves to be addressed directly. So, [SPOILER ALERT] the scene in which Mariama, a roughly eleven-year-old girl, is masturbated by a Yemaya, grown woman who has taken on a maternal role for her? More than a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure if the fact that the child, who doesn’t know what sex is, initiated it is supposed to make it seem more okay, but it does not make me feel any better about what happened. [/SPOILER ALERT] There are a few problematic parts of this novel, including a less-than-perfect depiction of transgender people (e.g. the description of Meena’s former lover having “fully changed into a woman” as if she wouldn’t have been one without transitioning) being another that comes to mind immediately, but that is the one that makes me almost not want to recommend this book, as much as I loved the rest of it.

Overall, though, as far as the narrative, pacing, and overall arch of the story goes, it is inarguably engaging, and filled to overflowing with symbolism and curiosity and mystery. Early on, Meena’s narrative poses an important question: “It’s clear that life continues after trauma. What’s not clear is whether it’s worth continuing to live.” It’s hard to say whether The Girl in the Road answers this question within itself, but it is a question that keeps coming back if you watch for it, like the constellations or the ocean on the shore, giving the readers a plethora of opportunities to answer it for themselves right up to the end.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.