I took summer off to read other interesting books, but now I’m back to my 21 Authors project. Book 13 is The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson (published in 2003).
Content note: references to slavery, sex work and burning a man alive.
There are four main characters in three separate eras. We start with Mer, a plantation slave and skilled healer in the French colony Saint Domingue in the 18th century. Jeanne Duval (also known as Lemer) is a colored dancer who worked as a stage performer in Paris. She is based on a historical character with the same name from the latter half of the 19th century.
Thais (or Meritet) is a Greek-Nubian slave and prostitute in 4th century Alexandria who dreams of leaving Egypt. During a sojourn in the desert east of Aelia Capitolina (Roman Jerusalem), she inadvertently becomes St. Mary of Egypt. (St. Mary of Egypt also appears in existing historical documents.) Finally, there’s the newly-born goddess Ezili, whose nature allows her to travel free from the constraints of linear time and, within limits, experience life through people’s eyes, even occasionally influencing their actions.
We also meet other historical characters, like Makandal, a one-armed slave / vodou priest / rebel leader on Saint Domingue; Charles Baudelaire, a French poet and a long-time lover of Jeanne Duval; and Nadar, an early photographer and Baudelaire’s friend.
It’s Ezili’s story that links the three human women’s tales together, both physically and thematically. Mer’s life in Haiti includes life and death, literally, with her midwifery skills in demand and a slave revolt brewing. Jeanne and Thais are struggling to make ends meet. All three also struggle with what it means to be a black woman, compromises made in order to survive and questions of identity, colonialism and power.
Structurally the book is experimental, which made my reading experience a little uneven. The three tales are interspersed with Ezili’s fragmentary experiences plus single-word section breaks or chapter headings. (Maybe? I was confused by them.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can be an interesting artistic choice, just like the changes in typography (from regular font to italics or bold) to denote different speakers or voices in The Salt Roads.
But as a huge fan of early history it was disappointing to me that we get to see relatively little of the Egyptian scenes. The later eras get the majority of the attention, and Thais / Meritet’s story feels almost an afterthought – she appears roughly halfway through, and when the story does return to her it’s not for long.
The Salt Roads seemed very slow to start. Since the book was quick to read, I didn’t mind, though. I’m glad I chose the novel without first seeing the cover, for I find it really creepy; I most certainly wouldn’t have picked up The Salt Roads had I just randomly come across that particular cover. I would’ve missed a thought-provoking, enjoyable and intriguing read.
Evocative and character-driven, The Salt Roads weaves together history and speculative elements with Afro-Caribbean mythology and religion. Despite the plot crossing both an ocean and barriers created by time, there are no world-saving heroic deeds and no easy answers in The Salt Roads. The passionate women are merely attempting to solve their own problems and live as best as they can within the limitations of their respective times and societies.
Because of the way Hopkinson confronts the big problems head on, the novel is not always comfortable. That’s ok. Hopkinson’s honesty in all of its bluntness is refreshing and necessary.
P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.