Friday, 30 January 2015

The Salt Roads by Nano Hopkinson

Hopkinson’s time-traveling, genre-spanning novel weaves a common thread of spiritualism and hope through three intertwined stories of women possessed by Ezili, the goddess of love, as she inspires, inhabits, and guides them through trying personal and historical moments. Jeanne Duval is a talented entertainer suffering from the ravages of a sexually transmitted disease; Mer is a slave and talented doctor who bears witness as Saint Domingue throws off the yoke of colonial rule in the early nineteenth century; and Meritet is a woman of the night who finds religion her own way. Though the three are separated by many miles and centuries, a powerful bond draws them together.
Epic, wrenching, and passionate, The Salt Roads is laced with graceful, lyrical prose. Hopkinson has crafted a one-of-a-kind novel that spans hundreds of years and multiple countries to tell a mystical, heartrending story of self-worth, respect, and salvation.

Goodreads description

When I decided to apply for a review copy of The Salt Roads I was a bit worried that it would not be magic realism. Nalo Hopkinson is usually listed as a writer of speculative fiction, but she also appears in the online lists of magic-realist writers. Having read this novel I can say that those lists are right. I found the book easy and most enjoyable to read.

This is an ambitious book, weaving together three distinct stories set at different historical times and continents. At the centre of each story is a strong female protagonist - Mer in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne Duval in 19th century Paris and Meritet in 4th century Egypt. Of these Jeanne Duval was a real historical personality - the mistress and muse of the poet Baudelaire. Mer's story features Makandal, the leader of a slave rebellion in Haiti. Meritet is humourously portrayed by Hopkinson as the historical source of the hagiography of St Mary of Egypt. The three stories are bound together by the Ginen goddess Lasiren or Ezili, whose first-person voice appears in short poetic chapters between the stories and who moves between the world of the spirits and the historical worlds of the three women. 

Edouard Manet 014
Edouard Manet, portrait of Jeanne Duval (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As is often the case when the are three stories in one book, I found myself having difficulties as the novel shifted from one story to another and from one protagonist to another. This was not helped by the fact that the stories are not distributed evenly throughout the book. We start with Mer, whose story was the one I was most taken with. Meritet does not appear until much later in the book. In fact all three characters could have merited a book to themselves. 

There are several themes in the book - the most obvious being the black experience throughout history and the racism those of African heritage experienced and continue to experience. Slavery and its horrors feature in the story of Mer and to a lesser extent in that of Meritet. This brings obvious comparisons with Beloved by Toni Morrison and inevitably The Salt Roads suffers in comparison. In addition the novel also invites comparisons with Alejo Carpentier's early magic-realist novel  The Kingdom of This World which also features the Haitian slave rebellion. 

In fact all the way through this book I kept being reminded of other novels. The idea of the old gods of Africa coming with the slaves to the new world is used by Neil Gaiman in American Gods and Anansi Boys. Hopkinson's book does not explore the concept as deeply as Gaiman's, because she is also exploring other themes.
A major theme in the novel is the feminist one. Women are defined by their sexual use by men, especially white men. On the Haiti slave plantations we see the female slaves' only chance of advancement and the possible survival of their children is to provide sexual services to a white man, even a poor one. Likewise Jeanne Duval's survival is in the pleasuring of Charles Baudelaire. Meritet was sold by her parents to a brothelkeeper. When Lasiren takes over the mind of the slave plantation owner's white fiancee, we see that she too is bound by the same imperative - she is marrying him for financial security rather than affection. Only Mer's power is not based in the provision of sexual services, but as that very female archetype of wisewoman. But then she is also considered old. 
If you don't like explicit sexual scenes, don't read this book, as they feature from the very start. Both Jeanne and Mer find sexual pleasure in lesbian relationships, and their lesbian experience is contrasted with the lack of pleasure given by men. Female sexuality can be liberating.  Lasiren is a goddess of fertility and female sexuality, so that when she takes over Jeanne's dance it becomes strongly sexual and powerful

There is so much to write about in this book. I am sure that it is the subject of many an academic essay and I cannot cover it all.  I don't think Salt Roads delivers fully on all it aspires to do, but it is still a remarkable achievement. As my granny used to say "It is better to aim at the stars and hit the moon, than not to aim at all."

I received this book free from the publishers via Netgalley in return for a fair review

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