Nalo Hopkinson's first two novels, Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber, largely follow a traditional, linear story arc, although Brown Girl does have some alternating viewpoints and Midnight Robber features several stories that are mythological retellings of the narrative. With The Salt Roads, Ms. Hopkinson deviates considerably from this format and largely succeeds.
Chapter headings are pieces of a poem, which is entirely apropos, since Ms. Hopkinson appears to want this novel to have more of a poetic rather than novelistic feel. By that I mean that it is more important to create an emotional resonance in the reader rather than to have all of the threads of the narrative neatly tied in the climax. Indeed, there is hardly a narrative climax (though there are several sexual climaxes) and most of the endings (there are several) come to unlikely, though ultimately satisfying, conclusions.
There are four stories in the novel, loosely tied together. The first is that of Mer, a Haitian slave who is a revered healer among her people, the Ginen. The second is that of Jeanne Duval, the "ginger" lover of Charles Baudelaire. She is ginger from her coloring and her inner fire; there is nothing ginger at all about her treatment of Baudelaire. The third, which comes quite late in the narrative, is that of Thais, or Meritet, an Egyptian prostitute. And the fourth is the thread that binds: the story of the goddess Ezili, who is born in a rather horrific but wonderfully written scene in Haiti, and who subsequently is bound to the other three women except when they sleep, at which point she is free to follow the "storystream" of the Ginen.
Each of the women experiences love and tragedy, and each affect the world but only indirectly and not in the way I'd expected.
Jeanne is perhaps the weakest character in this regard. Her affair with Baudelaire is said to be scandalous because of her coloring, but we never quite see enough Parisians to really feel this. The closest Ms. Hopkinson comes is when Baudelaire's mother meets Jeanne, but because she is his mother and has a personal stake in his life, not just a political one, she is not enough to be representative of the whole of society. Because these characters are terribly isolated, spending most of their time in bedrooms, it is difficult to see how Jeanne's life carries particular meaning for the history of the Ginen. That she is an inspiration and aggravation for a French poet isn't enough to justify her placement in this novel, if this novel is about the effect of black women throughout history. However, Ms. Hopkinson is gifted at depicting the subtleties of love. The relationship of Jeanne and Baudelaire, as well as Jeanne and another man who enters quite late in the narrative, is exceptionally well drawn. Though not as relevant to the main thrust of the story, these relationships are nonetheless quite moving and ultimately triumphant.
Ezili, a newborn goddess, is passive throughout most of the book, though she does act in rather extraordinary ways at times, and always through the medium of a woman. One of the climaxes of the book is a conflict between Ezili and Ogu, a warrior god. The conflict between them is symbolic of the difference between the way in which men and women act to affect their lives.
Mer is given a command by the goddess—to mend the salt roads—but the manner in which she does so is so quiet as to be almost missed. The greatest portion of the novel is devoted to Mer's story, where Ms. Hopkinson's descriptive skills and authentic dialogue are honed to their sharpest, depicting a world both cruel and sensual. Slavery is usually shown as a panoramic shot to protect us from the everyday brutality: the slave we see beaten by the whip is only rarely a person, is nearly always a symbol. If we see slavery from the inside, it is through the eyes of a revolutionary, that terribly rare man (never a woman) willing to take the risks to obtain freedom. In this book, we see what really happens to just such a man. Ms. Hopkinson shows us the everyday brutality: the sunup to sundown (sometimes literally) backbreaking labor; the forced religious conversion which appears to be motivated by mercy but whose true purpose is to justify the condition of, and mollify, the slaves; the callousness of the slave-owner that at first glance seems capricious but is at heart ruthlessly calculated.
By comparison, the streets of Paris and ancient Egypt feel somewhat generic, though the women are most certainly not.
Thais' effect is more profound than Mer's. Because she is a Christian figure, I cannot imagine devout Christians will take kindly to the manner of her conversion. Ms. Hopkinson tells us, in fragments from history, that Thais could not enter the Church of the Sepulchre. History does not tell us why, of course, but Ms. Hopkinson's wonderful hypothesis is not only vividly realized but is a perfect commentary on the role women have played throughout history. The Virgin plays a prominent part in this section; the manner in which she is contrasted with Thais is almost too subtle.
However, this brings me to the most difficult part of the novel, which is the role that women do play. "Lesbian" is a term that reeks of twentieth century politics, and as such, I don't think is an appropriate label for Mer; yet her only love is another woman. It seems improbable that the Christian slave-owners and the slave men would accept this when she is a woman capable of bearing more children. I can't imagine that such actions could be kept secret on a slave plantation where Ms. Hopkinson tells us that some slaves would willfully sell out their own for increased privileges. Jeanne has both a male and a female lover. If she is not always happy about her actions, she is at least willing to prostitute herself to her rich lover to provide for herself and her mother, who was also a prostitute. (Her grandmother was as well.) And Thais is that rarest of all breeds: a prostitute who revels in her sexual excesses. Curiously, while Ms. Hopkinson plays with the history of Thais, inverting and subverting history's whitewashed details, she takes for granted the implications in the statement, "[She] hoped the trip [to Jerusalem] would provide her with many opportunities to satisfy her lust."
What I find problematic is that these women Ms. Hopkinson has chosen are not representative of the entire spectrum of women. They have few, if any, limits on sexual expression. What Jeanne does to Charles is graphic and would qualify as extraordinarily kinky to ninety-some percent of the population. I don't have an objection to what they do—and Ms. Hopkinson has such skill that she can eroticize acts I don't normally find appealing—but it does seem remarkable that these are three women who just can't say no to anything, nor ever want to.
In a novel with the traditional structure, extraordinary women would be the norm, if that were not too much of an oxymoron. But in a novel designed to outline the effect real women have on history, it seems necessary that some of the women chosen be more ordinary, else the novel risks trivializing the vast majority of real women who make the mundane choice.
And yet, and yet. . .
I wonder if my own male bias is showing, for the novel left me deeply satisfied. The endings to their lives are surprising and yet appropriate. In the end, these women are not extraordinary in the traditional, historical sense. They are not radicals, not revolutionaries, not the subject for a four-hour PBS special. They make a slight mark, like a footstep in a major road, but their lives nonetheless change the world around them in radical and revolutionary ways.
Ms. Hopkinson is a black, female writer who writes with such a warm and endearing voice that she can take large and complex issues and weave a story from them with a clear moral, but without devolving into clumsy didacticism. (A number of current male SF writers would do well to follow her lead.) Her light voice is a perfect compliment to the heft of the issues she confronts. In The Salt Roads, Ms. Hopkinson writes with such ease that it is a pleasure to sit and listen to her for a while, and to walk away with a profound sense of what it must be like to be a black woman.
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