The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

4th Jun 2014

A Girl in the Road
Set in a near-future full of tracking chips and solar-powered ovens, playwright Monica Byrne's first novel follows two young women on epic journeys across the globe...

The Girl in the Road begins with one of our narrators, Meena, finding a snake in her bed. Fearing that Ethiopian nationalists are out to kill her as they murdered her parents long ago, she flees from her home in Kerala to Mumbai, where she decides to travel to Africa herself and finally track down her parents’ killers.

To avoid pursuit, Meena chooses what may be the only untraceable route in this futuristic world of implanted tracking chips and instant global surveillance: she’s going to walk the Trail. The Trail is a wave power array, a metal serpent that winds over 3,000 kilometers from India to the coast of Djibouti.

To avoid pursuit, Meena chooses what may be the only untraceable route in this futuristic world of implanted tracking chips and instant global surveillance: she’s going to walk the Trail.The trek is both illegal and intensely dangerous, but the Trail attracts pilgrims, entrepreneurs, scientists, thrillseekers, lost souls of every stripe – and, if you believe the rumours, ghosts. Meena’s journey starts off as an interesting wilderness survival tale, but quickly becomes part spiritual odyssey, part horror story, as Meena has a series of increasingly unnerving visions… or is that really all they are?

Interspersed with Meena’s story is a different narrative that begins in an eerily similar way: seven-year-old escaped slave Mariama returns to the makeshift shelter she shares with her mother, only to discover a venomous snake on their sleeping mat. Mariama runs, and ends up falling in with a convoy of oil trucks bound for Ethiopia, where she comes under the protection of a mysterious woman who’s fleeing her own past.

The two travel stories, both told in first person, have a very different feel to them: Meena weaves together religion, physics, and philosophy in an attempt to understand the meaning of the journey she’s making, while Mariama’s narration is full of simple, achingly intense emotion, related in Byrne’s strong, spare prose.

The same themes, however, run through both – love, jealousy, and the mark that that loss of a mother leaves on a daughter. And along the way, Byrne plays with the reader’s perceptions masterfully. We’re seeing the story unfold through two heavily skewed perspectives – a child’s, and that of a woman who may or may not be in her right mind – and questions of what’s real, and how the two stories are connected, make for gripping reading.

The Girl in the Road is set in a vividly detailed near-future dominated by the relationships among African and Asian countries, where privileged young Indian students lie around artsy flats in Addis Ababa, going on about how deep and spiritual Ethiopian jazz is, while African students take to the streets to protest the encroachment of India and China.

A raft of interesting mid-21st century technologies – like the chip that operates as a combined tracking system and portable social media profile, or the solar-powered oven that can convert any organic matter into food – are integrated into the story with a light touch, creating a realistic future world without pulling focus from the real strength of Byrne’s story: the diverse cast of deftly sketched characters. In particular, the broad range of positive portrayals of LGBT women of colour come as a breath of fresh air.

The book presents a future that’s plausible and inventive enough to intrigue sci-fi fans, but ultimately, it’s about intimate human connections rather than world-building, and even readers who aren’t normally interested in science fiction would do well to give this one a try.

by Catherine Martin