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Book Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

My experience reading The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne can be boiled down to: this was an amazing novel until it wasn’t anymore. I am deeply conflicted about it.

Title: The Girl in the Road

Author: Monica Byrne

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: January 2014
Hardcover/Paperback: 336 pages

The Girl in the Road Girl in the Road

Meena, a young woman living in a futuristic Mumbai, wakes up with five snake bites on her chest. She doesn’t know how or why, but she must flee India and return to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. Having long heard about The Trail — an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea — she embarks on foot on this forbidden bridge, with its own subculture and rules. What awaits her in Ethiopia is unclear; she’s hoping the journey will illuminate it for her.

Mariama, a girl from a different time, is on a quest of her own. After witnessing her mother’s rape, she joins up with a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. She meets Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. Yemaya tells Mariama of Ethiopia, where revolution is brewing and life will be better. Mariama hopes against hope that it offers much more than Yemaya ever promised.

As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama’s fates will entwine in ways that are profoundly moving and shocking to the core. Vividly imagined and artfully told, written with stunning clarity and deep emotion, The Girl in the Road is a true tour de force.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

Format (e- or p-): eBook

Review:

Trigger warning: rape; child abuse.
Spoiler warning.

My experience reading The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne can be boiled down to: this was an amazing novel until it wasn’t anymore. I am deeply conflicted about it.

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Somewhen in the near-future, Meena, a young woman wakes up in Mumbai with five snake bites on her chest. Not knowing what caused it or why, she goes on the run. Leaving everything behind, including her lover Mohini, Meena attempts a desperate feat: the crossing of The Trail – an energy-harvesting, moveable bridge that connects India to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, she hopes to find succour and some answers about the murder of her blood parents. Who killed them, why and can she still find the woman who did it?

Somewhen in the near-past (within the story), a parallel story unfolds as Mariama, a young girl from West Africa flees a life of slavery. Joining a caravan on its way to Ethiopia, Mariama becomes entangled with her hosts and Yemaya, a mysterious young woman who joins them.

Both women tell their stories to those who are not there: at least not exactly.

The girl in the road is Meena. The girl in the road is Mariama. The girl in the road is Yemaya. The girl in the road is Mohini. The girl in the road wears a sari and haunts them all.

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What made The Girl in the Road feel amazing in the first place?

The imagined near-future that it neither dystopic nor post-apocalyptic but rather a vibrant fusion of advanced technology, sexual and gender openness and of post-racial diversity. The story’s details of those are less on the detailed side and more on lived experience of these women, especially Meena. India is now a superpower attempting to colonise – and mostly failing at it – African countries. The Trail itself is an amazing feat of technology and wonder.

From a bare bones perspective, two aspects of the novel worked as catnip for me, as a reader: Meena’s journey across The Trail is a cool survival story, a quest and a journey of self-realisation. The difficulties she encounters are thrilling and agonising. The loneliness and the acute sense of isolation leap from the pages.

The unreliability of its narrators though, is what clinched it for me in the beginning. From the get go, it is clear that these are splintered narratives told by fractured, broken women. Meena many times voices that she is in the middle of a manic episode: what triggered it is part of the mystery behind her narration. Mariama doesn’t need to tell us that she is not stable: it is clear that the trauma of slavery (and of something else that happened to her mother which we don’t until late into the novel) linger in profound ways because even though Mariama’s narration happens from a point in the future when she is an adult, her narrative voice is still that of a child, stuck in those early childhood experiences.

It is when it becomes clear how their lives intersect in a jarring plot twist and the extent of the sexual/gendered violence in the novel that the shift from amazing to “wtf” happened. This is where this review gets spoilery and triggery.

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I read this book now because it just won the Tiptree Award. It says on the award’s website:

With profound compassion and insight, the novel tackles relationships between gender and culture and between gender and violence. It provides a nuanced portrait of violence against women, in a variety of forms, and violence perpetrated by women. Through the eyes of two narrators linked by a single act of violence, the reader is brought to confront shifting ideas of gender, class, and human agency and dignity.

I’d like to unpack that so that I can unpack my own feelings about the novel.

I don’t think there is anything nuanced about the portrait of violence against women here. Quite the contrary, I would argue. There is no “single” act of violence either, there are in fact many of them, from different places, affecting both these women and all women around them.

Yes, there is a case to be made about the fact that both narrators are indeed unreliable and how that colours the narration. However, the story is still framed by violence against women in a way that I felt 1) was used as shock value and/or 2) its very existence goes unchallenged.

For most of her narrative, Meena refuses to acknowledge even to herself what she did. It’s only very late into the novel when she – almost miraculously might I add – is able to regain a measure of stability and recount what really happened: Meena is fleeing the scene of a crime she committed, where she violently beat up and possibly murdered her lover, a trans woman named Mohini. Mohini is the person Meena addresses most of her narrative to but she has barely any voice in the telling. Meena sees her in a way that I found objectified Mohini rather than humanised her. And I ultimately find that Mohini is another example of a Tragic Queer character whose demise is brought upon by others and serves to motivate someone else’s story. This is painful, frustrating and problematic.

What made Mariama run was the witnessed rape of her mother. She later is sexually abused by a much older woman when she is still a child. Later in life, she witness another rape, when another woman is raped in front of her eyes. Mind you, it’s worth noting that I don’t have a problem with how Mariama’s sexual abuse as a child is described (it seems I also somehow managed to completely miss the controversy around this scene): it is a deeply horrifying, discomfiting scene for many obvious reasons but mostly because it is from the perspective of a deeply traumatised, unbalanced child who does not realise what is being done to her. I did not feel the narrative condoned it in any shape or form.

But here is what went on and on inside my head when reading this: what does it say about a novel set in the future where so many cultural, social, political, economical aspects of society are shifting, except for this one? What does it say about a novel written by someone outside the societies it portrays, that shows that type of violence as though it is an intrinsic part of those cultures and societies? What does it mean when that violence reeks of inevitability?

I do not think the novel allows the reader “to confront shifting ideas of gender”: because they are not shown as shifting. They are shown as something that has happened in the past, is happening now and will happen in the future. And I hope it goes without saying that I am not advocating here that we somehow erase those stories, because gendered violence is a very real thing that is worth writing about and worth seeing portrayed, examined and questioned. I just want this to be done well. Ultimately, I don’t feel I can say this about The Girl in the Road.

Rating: I don’t know!

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

Book Depository UK amazon_uk

Ebook available for kindle US, nook, itunes

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4 Comments

  • RobH
    April 27, 2015 at 9:02 am

    For me at least, all of the ‘Buy the Book” links seem to point to Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings rather than The Girl in the Road. Did something go wrong somewhere?

    Also, the book is actually on sale, at least on the US Kindle store, for just $1.99 at the moment. Seems like too good a deal to pass up if you don’t already have it.

  • Danielle
    April 28, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Based on the book’s description this sounded like something I would love. Glad I read your review first, because I am nearly certain I would have walked away from reading it unhappy and angry.

  • IC
    April 29, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    My reading of this book was a bit different. To me, this book demonstrates the point that the past isn’t something you can just move on from–it’s inside us. Past experiences are rooted inside of us and affect us in ways we aren’t conscious of–and not just our own pasts, but the pasts of the people before us. Trauma is handed down and it affects everyone for generations to come.

    Because our history can’t be erased. It’s not enough to say, “I’m not racist/transphobic/sexist!” We have to actively seek out the racism/transphobia/sexism that’s been passed down to us and take it apart piece by piece–which is a difficult task and one that people will keep denying for as long as they can.

    *spoiler alert*

    Throughout her journey, Meena denies that she harbors some transphobia inside of her (after all, how can she be transphobic if her partner is a trans woman?). She puts Mohini on a pedestal and often objectifies her (much like Mariama does with Yemaya). She is constantly attempting to rewrite Mohini’s story for her in order to have it fit within her own narrative. When she loses control of that, she reacts violently (violence is so often about control). She desperately needs Mohini to be perfect in order to “prove” wrong the generations before her. But then she’s confronted with the fact that Mohini is human.

    I feel like this book is saying that the reason sexism/racism/transphobia/ is still so prevalent in a society that has advanced in many other ways is because we keep denying it exists in the first place. We would rather hold ourselves up as progressive thinkers than face the transphobia and racism that has been passed down to us. We don’t want to have to be the ones to take it apart so we push it down and pass it on to the next generation to deal with.

    I’m not trying to say your reading and criticisms of the book are invalid; it just wasn’t my experience with it.

  • nikki @bookpunks
    May 13, 2015 at 3:05 am

    Where was the controversy about the Mariama/Yemaya scene taking place? I am writing about the book right now, and I wanted to talk about that, of course with context of any controversy that surrounded it…but I have yet to find anything. Have any links? Thanks. x

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