TW: child abuse, rape, transphobia.
This review contains spoilers.
Set in the 2060s, in an India that’s become a new world power and an Africa it’s in the process of colonising, Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road follows not just one girl but two: Mariama, a child displaced by violence from her home in Mauritania, who joins a truck crew heading for Ethiopia, where she is promised a better and richer life; and Meena, not really a girl but a young woman, fleeing political violence in Mumbai by way of the Trail, a floating energy-harvesting bridge strung between India and Ethiopia, where her parents came from.
Both are profoundly unreliable narrators, obfuscating the truth of what’s happening to them for reasons of self-preservation. This, combined with the particular manner in which their stories dovetail (they turn out to be related; I won’t tell you how, the reveal is part of the particular shock of the book), gives the novel a feel that’s much more Gothic than it is SF. Indeed, apart from the Trail and a couple of plot-insignificant near-future technologies (plus the reality of climate change, which is as much a present threat now as it is the stuff of apocalypse/dystopia), The Girl in the Road is hardly SFnal at all. And yet: the SFnal sense that the world is different – is, specifically, unrecognisable – is essential to the novel’s affect. The volatile global socioeconomic and political context, the ever-present threat of climate change-induced tsunami, is important context for, and a reflection of, the characters’ uncertainty about themselves.
That uncertainty finds its expression, for both characters, in a moment of profound trauma, and I want to talk for a moment about how those traumas are handled. For Mariama, it’s her sexual assault at the hands of the adult woman Yemaya, someone she’s come to see as a mother figure and even as a goddess, associating her with the Yoruba water deity of the same name. The nuance of how this scene is presented, and of the specific ways in which Mariama is unreliable as a narrator of her own life, has generated some controversy. For me, this scene makes (heartbreakingly) clear how wrong Mariama is about Yemaya, and thus how damaged she is by her dislocation (which was caused by her mother’s rape by a man they’d been fleeing for some time). It’s easy to read it differently, though, precisely because Mariama doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to her and how Yemaya is taking advantage of her.
Nevertheless – if we are supposed to read Yemaya as a predator, another important question is: why include this scene at all? The bar for “do I include rape in my fiction” is high, and even higher, I’d argue, when there’s a child involved. But this moment is, I think, the moment on which Mariama’s story turns. It’s key to our understanding of her as unreliable: the point in the story when her self-narration becomes separate to the story of what really happened. And our understanding of the narrative she’s telling herself, and how it’s different to our own understanding, informs her whole character arc, both before and after her rape. Structurally, it’s an important moment, and it’s handled well.
Then there’s Meena. Meena, it turns out, is fleeing not from political enemies who want to assassinate her, as she tells herself and the reader throughout the text. On the Trail she has a breakdown which forces her to confront the fact that she’s beaten up and possibly murdered her girlfriend Mohini – who is trans.
This, I think, is much less well-handled. Trans people in real life face a far higher risk of domestic violence than cis people, and so, I’d argue, the bar for fictionalising such an event is similarly high. Here, Mohini only exists to inform the cis protagonist’s character development – and while Byrne doesn’t seem to expect us to have sympathy with Meena’s actions, she’s still the character with whom we identify most. Also, I get the sense that Mohini’s transness is there mainly to illustrate the novel’s themes of change, dislocation and fluidity, without actually centring her as a person, which kind of…feels gross? Trans people are not A Theme – if you’re going to tell a story that’s about violence directed at trans people, you should be centring their experiences, not those of their cis attackers.
To sum up: this is a novel about people living through profound change and dislocation, and the specific and often harmful ways in which they respond to that. You might almost call it a novel about modernity – about this interconnected world where cultural identities are becoming blurred and erased. (It’s worth noting that Byrne herself is a white American, and while the novel doesn’t feel appropriative in that sense, a) I’m a white Westerner too, so I may well be missing context, and b) it might be that it’s only because she is white that the book was published at all.) It’s a challenging book that’s not always easy to get on with, and that not everyone will like! Is it worth reading? Yes, given the caveats in this review – I’d also add to that list content notes for gore and abortion. As a Goodreads reader sums it up, in answer to a question about whether The Girl in the Road would make a good book club pick: “Yes, discussions…I can see fist fights breaking out.”