Time does not flow for me. Not for me the progression in a straight line from earliest to latest. Time eddies. I am now then, now there, sometimes simultaneously.
Nalo Hopkinson published The Salt Roads in 2003. Originally the book was marketed as historical fiction, and sometimes as magical realism, if those categories matter. The concrete nature of the world-building and the attention to detail, especially in the sections set on the island of St. Domingue, make the book more grounded than you might expect in a story where, to all intents and purposes, a god is the main character. Somewhat ironically, the St. Domingue sections also contain most of the “fantastical” events.
Lasiren, or Ezili, is an African god and the book follows her birth, so to speak, and maturation as a god, while she samples the lives of three women. The deity is borne across the ocean in the souls and minds of her people, and three sounds awaken her. It is no coincidence that each of the three women she follows has three names.
…Three sounds: Song. Prayer. Screams. From a riverbank, from the throats of black women. The ululated notes vibrate the chains that tie me to the ship. I thrash my arms in response, learning that they are arms the second I move them.
The stories of Mer, Meriket, and Jeanne are filled with song, with prayers and with screams, even if sometimes those screams are silent.
I said The Salt Roads “follows” Ezili’s growth, but as the opening quote hints, Ezili does not experience our world in a linear fashion. In one sense, she is called into this realm by the lamentations of enslaved women on a plantation on St. Domingue, as they are burying the stillborn baby of one of them. Once the god is here, she enters into three women at various points of history, and we go with her. On St. Domingue, the strong, sad healer Mer tries to keep her community alive, and keep hope alive, even though the slaves are starved and worked literally to death. In Paris in the 1840s, Jeanne Duval, a dancer and actress of Haitian descent, struggles to maintain her destructive but intense relationship with poet Charles Baudelaire. In 345 C.E. Alexandria, a slave named Meriket undertakes a journey to see the temple in Aelia Capitolina, and becomes, strangely, a Catholic saint.
The three women we follow are richly developed characters, living real lives, some of oppression and enslavement, some of precarious social independence but economic servitude. (Jeanne Duval is historical, and Hopkinson sticks closely to real-life events.) They aren’t always nice people: Meriket is vain and shallow at the beginning; Jeanne grows increasingly bitter as her relationship with Baudelaire sours. Baudelaire cannot separate himself from his mother and the financial strings that she pulls, and eventually he abandons Jeanne. Mer fights to keep her people safe, and this puts her at odds with Makandal, an escaped slave and revolutionary. Later, through the eyes of Ezili, we understand how Mer and people like her kept a flame of freedom alive until the Haitian Revolution, but Mer cannot see that. While I was reading The Salt Roads, Mer broke my heart, because I knew she would not live to see the thing she yearned for.
Hopkinson was experimental in her approach to The Salt Roads, both in the non-linear structure and at the level of line-by-line prose. Typography and formatting can change from paragraph to paragraph, creating an illusion of different voices; creating a sense of poetry, of chant, of music. This experimental approach is employed in service to the story, and it enriched the reading experience for me. Swirling through all the stories is a sense of the salt roads, the roads Ezili travels and seeks; roads of memory, roads of bloodlines. In Mer’s story, the god tells Mer that the roads are blocked, and they appear not as streams or currents of water but as swamps, dead-ends, traps. These traps and dead-ends appear over and over in the lives of the three women.
Meriket appears when we are well into the book. Her story unfolded slowly and I found it confusing, at least at first. Plus, it pulled me away from two intense, highly emotional stories that I was invested in. Meriket and her journey are fascinating and I wish they had been worked into the book a little bit differently.
The Salt Roads can be hard to read, emotionally. Hopkinson is painstaking in her descriptions of plantation slavery and will not allow us to look away from how the enslaved are treated. For instance, I don’t know why it shocked me that the plantation owners had no trouble working people sixteen hours a day six days a week and expecting them to grow their own food in their “spare time,” basically, literally, working people to death… but it did. I don’t know why I had some idea that once you’ve stolen people’s freedom there would still be some kind of “floor” of decent behavior that you wouldn’t drop below, but I did. Somehow, I wanted to hold onto an idea that enslavement, while terrible, maybe wasn’t that bad. The Salt Roads wouldn’t let me do that. It made me be honest. This is what good writing, good fantasy writing, in the hands of an accomplished writer, can do; it can help you set aside your own illusions.
The Salt Roads was painful at times. It was complex. It is the kind of book that made me flip to the back, where Hopkinson discussed books that inspired her, and write down at least three that I want to find and read now. It confirms Hopkinson’s stature in my mind as a writer of great power.
I almost literally stumbled across this book, and I am very glad I did. My sense of Hopkinson as a writer was that she is hard-working and brilliant; The Salt Roads validates that sense, and opened up a world I didn’t see before. Ultimately, The Salt Roads is rewarding in so many ways.