As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” In ‘The Girl in the Road,’ Monica Byrne gives us a near-future in those parts of the world which have still not received their fair share of the ‘distribution.’
An enormous structure which generates power from wave energy has been built, stretching across the Arabian Sea from India to Africa. This feat of technology has been hyped by its creators – but to some, its most significant feature is the possibility of a ‘land bridge’ a way to escape, undocumented, from one country to another. For this reason, they insist on calling it ‘The Trail.’
In one half of this story, we meet a woman who is drawn to the Trail for just this reason. Meena is an educated, seemingly privileged woman of Mumbai. However, she’s clearly experiencing severe emotional trauma regarding an event involving her lover, Mohini, the details of which she is hiding from us. And it seems likely that on top of that trauma, she may be a disturbed individual to begin with.
The other half of the story follows Mariama, a young girl in Mauritania who is on her own after escaping slavery with her mother. Attaching herself to two men she randomly meets, by stowing away on their transport convoy; she hopes to make it across the continent to Ethiopia and the hope of a better life. When another girl, the young woman Yemaya, joins the convoy, Mariama latches onto her with passionate hero-worship.
Of course, the stories of Meena and Mariama will eventually meet, and it will be revealed how they are interconnected. Along the way, Byrne creates a gritty and vivid world, both believable and hallucinatory. The book relies very heavily on symbolism, and is involved with the inner states of both of our (very unreliable) narrators. At times, I found myself wishing it would concentrate just a bit more on the science-fiction elements of the book, because I found some of the ideas incredibly interesting and deserving of more exploration into how the described changes have affected society. However, then the book – which has set up our characters and situation as what seems to be a fairly standard, though original, future-adventure with two fairly sympathetic protagonists – left-turns into darkness.
Revealing more would be spoilers, but let’s just say that it borders on horror territory, and is not at all a comfortable or easy read. The reader’s sympathies don’t quite end up where you might expect. And for me, that’s what pushed the book up into 5-star territory.
My one complaint? The epilogue. It ends with an ambiguous meeting of two characters, whose identities are not fully revealed in the text. However, the way it’s written, the reader feels like they ought to be able to figure out who they are. I had to go to an interview with the author to get the answer… I didn’t find that last scene to be necessary.
Overall, though, I was still extremely impressed with the book, and I look forward to seeing what this new author does next.