A first novel by author Monica Byrne. She's a writer, playwright, and traveler. She holds degrees in biochemistry from Wellesley and MIT. Just mentioning all these things explains a lot about her novel, and the ideas used and the very vivid world she created.
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
Two girls. Two stories. Two different decades. One side of the story centers on Meena, an Indian girl--yes, the protagonist is Indian which was so refreshing--and the other pov was centered on Mariama, an African girl--yes, already liking the diversity here.
Right off the bet you get a sense that Meena is not right in the head, and that she's keeping a lot from the reader. First point of view. She thinks she's being followed and decides to leave the country to go to Africa, where her parents were murdered long ago. Meena is a smart girl and went to the best schools. She's a tad entitled with strong prejudices. This make sense since she grew up with a family and culture that looked down on certain races and lower classes. Meena also has a rebellious streak and has lots of sex with guys and girls. Doesn't matter to her. The one thing that was going well for her was the relationship with a transgender performer. However, as the story continues one starts to wonder why her girlfriend didn't come along. Is she even alive? Does she exist? Meena sees all types of things that aren't really there.
The midpoint of her journey has Meena walking a trail. And this concept was amazing to me. The trail starts from India all across the ocean to Africa. It's walkable but very unstable. It's like backpacking on ocean scales. I liked a lot of the devices that Meena took with her and all the names for the futuristic tools. Like the sunbits and scrolls. Very clever. Meena did often go into her head to think about her past and some parts in the middle got a little tedious because of it, but eventually something else would happen or she would encounter a person.....there's more here with Meena, but honestly, I thought her problems were just okay in comparison to Mariama's side.
I also found a lot of her decisions unnecessary. Like leaving the country in the first place...at least it seemed that way to me for so long, and so it was hard to relate to her because I thought her leaving was a tad over the top, and she had no good reason. I think if there's one thing I didn't enjoy about Meena's story was how much the author withheld from us. Too much to the point that I just couldn't cheer for Meena. Like there was a bit where she intentionally tossed the equipment that filtered the water to make it drinkable, something she desperately needed on a trip from India to Africa on foot! Delusional or not, it just didn't seem like something Meena would do. However, she would sometimes redeem herself with her cunning nature.
Now for the fun part, Mariama. I loved her whole story. In fact, I often wanted to skip Meena's aka Durga's chapters just to get to her story. Unlike Meena who's a wealthy twenty something-year-old, Mariama was a slave little girl. Her mother was abused and raped and tells the little girl to run off and be free. To find someone who can take care of her. This is how this little girl's journey started. She does find two men who are on the road doing a delivery that will take them about six months--give or take. Mohammed and Francis. I liked these two. I liked that they were good to her. Mohammed was a tad more wary and Francis was a loveable character, probably my favorite of the side characters.
Another person that eventually joins the three of them is Yemaha. Little Mariama becomes obsessed with this lady named after a goddess, and Yemaha is kind to her. Teaches her a language, as does Francis, and sleeps beside her at nights. Mariama takes to her very strongly to the point that her entire pov is dedicated to her. She doesn't address the reader. She addresses Yemaha. It took me a while to get used to that, but once I did I found it interesting. A lot of adventures happen on their journey and the sights are beautifully described. Either the author did a lot of research--which she did. Or she visited some of these sights--which she also did. It was a learning experience for me and I loved the richness, the nuances, learning about other cultures. Even if the story does take place in the far future.
Overall, the two tales come together and a lot is revealed at the end. I do believe that my connection with Meena would have been stronger if I had known a lot of her issues a lot sooner. For Mariama I felt like I was given a very straight forward story and even though there were twist and bends and her ending was indeed surprising, I can't say the same for Meena. Mariama was more chaotic and wanted more out of life. Meena just wanted to find the person who killed her parents, an odd motivation since she'd never in her life really cared about it up until that point. Sure, she missed having parents, but nothing warranting a long trip. Again, there was more to it, but I didn't know at the time so I couldn't connect. By the time we are told all the truth, my attention had already shifted to Mariama and stayed with her. Even when I knew how Mariama's story was going to end, I still wanted to see how she would end up doing what we were hinted at throughout the novel. I cared to see. I cared about the character.
There were so many layers to this novel, and you have to pay attention to everything because if you miss something, you really missed something. I enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed the world and the tools in it. The diversity. The places explored. I enjoyed it. Good stuff.