Have I mentioned how much I adore Nalo Hopkinson’s books? When I discovered her writing through Midnight Robber, it felt like a revelation. Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine didn’t work quite so well for me (but were still very good books!) but I knew right from the start that Hopkinson was a writer I would follow forever. It’s been a while since I picked up one of her books and maybe that’s why this one hit me so hard. I loved every single page, every character, every word of prose and I cannot recommend this highly enough.
THE SALT ROADS
by Nalo Hopkinson
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 2004
eBook: 410 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 14 minutes
My rating: 8.5/10
Opening line: “It went in white, but it will come out a mulatto in a few months’ time, yes?”
In 1804, shortly before the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue is renamed Haiti, a group of women gather to bury a stillborn baby. Led by a lesbian healer and midwife named Mer, the women’s lamentations inadvertently release the dead infant’s “unused vitality” to draw Ezili—the Afro-Caribbean goddess of sexual desire and love—into the physical world.
As Ezili explores her newfound powers, she travels across time and space to inhabit the midwife’s body—as well as those of Jeanne, a mixed-race dancer and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire living in 1880s Paris, and Meritet, an enslaved Greek-Nubian prostitute in ancient Alexandria.
Bound together by Ezili and “the salt road” of their sweat, blood, and tears, the three women struggle against a hostile world, unaware of the goddess’s presence in their lives. Despite her magic, Mer suffers as a slave on a sugar plantation until Ezili plants the seeds of uprising in her mind. Jeanne slowly succumbs to the ravages of age and syphilis when her lover is unable to escape his mother’s control. And Meritet, inspired by Ezili, flees her enslavement and makes a pilgrimage to Egypt, where she becomes known as Saint Mary.
If you’ve read anything by Nalo Hopkinson, you know she has a gift with language. And I don’t just mean in the sense that any writer has to be skilled in the ways of using words to create stories. It’s more than that. It’s using language not only for conveying information on a sentence level but for creating atmosphere, for making characters come to life, for building an entire world. In The Salt Roads, Hopkinson did all of this times three. We get to read three seperate (but connected) story lines involving three different female protagonists during three eras of history.
In 1804, we follow Mer, a slave woman and healer, as she delivers a stillborn baby. When Mer, the baby’s mother Georgine, and Tipingee (whom Mer appears to be in love with) bury the child, they inadvertently release the goddess Ezili who “inhabits” Mer’s mind and so follows her story. One of the other Haitian slaves, Makandal, has a plan for an uprising, for defeating the White slave owners, for making the island their own and living in freedom. It is this story that unfolds through Mer’s eyes. But Ezili also spends time in the mind of Jeanne Duval, Charles Beaudelaire’s mistress and muse, as well as Saint Mary of Egypt. In the novel we get to see these three women during their daily lives and their three different periods of history, all through the eyes of Women of Color.
When I started reading this book, I wasn’t aware that Jeanne Duval was a real woman and that her relationship to Charles Baudelaire was based on facts. It’s not knowledge you need to enjoy this book but I was interested enough to at least look at the Wikipedia page and see how well Hopkinson wrapped real-life events into her fictional tale. She gave Jeanne a voice and mind of her own, she gave her agency, and she made everything feel so much more real than reading about someone in a text book could ever be. I found that I cared about this mixed-race dancer/prostitute more and more. Her story deals with racism but it also touches on other issues, such as class differences, disability, and romantic relationships.
Makandal is also based on a real man but I only learned that after I had finished the book. If you’re intersted to learn a little bit about the real life basis for this novel, you can look him up. But beware of “spoilers” – is it a spoiler if it’s based on history? Well, his and Jeanne’s Wikipedia page will definitely spoil some of the story, so be warned. I was equally unaware that St. Mary of Egypt was real, who is first introduced as Meritet in this book and whose story takes a while to get going. For a long time, we follow Jeanne and Mer in loosely alternating chapters and only get a few short glimpses into Meritet’s life. Later on, Meritet takes center stage. Meritet is a prostitue who enjoys her job but dreams of more. She wants to see the world, learn what else is out there, and if she can have lots of sex on the way, that’s even better. As a prostitute, her view of sex is both pragmatic and passionate. I also really enjoyed her friendship with a gay male prostitute.
With two out of three protagonists being prostitutes, you can imagine that there’s a lot of sex in this book but I found it was used in interesting ways. First of all, there’s quite a bit of detailed description of various sexual acts – so if that’s not for you, maybe skip those parts. Secondly, and this is the important part, every sex scene felt real and honest. These characters are real women with real desires. Sometimes they use sex to their advantage because that’s the only power they have to take control of their lives, sometimes they simply rejoice in the pleasure of it. But it never felt gratuitous or used for shock value like it happens in some other books. Since the protagonists sometimes share a body/mind with the goddess of sexual desire, it also makes perfect sense to show these aspects of their lives.
Although the stories take place in three very different time periods, in different places, and with varying degrees of racism/sexism present, each story felt incredibly sex positive and there is some LGBTQIA+ representation. But please don’t think this book is all sex all the time. There is plenty of story and many other themes but if reading about sex makes you uncomfortable, you will probably not be too happy with this book.
Now let’s not forget the fourth protagonist, the goddess Ezili. We see her point of view (if you can call it that) in between the main chapters. And just like her own aetherial state, these mini chapters read a bit like snippets from a dream, like floating through the aether. They gave this otherwise realistic novel a sense of magic and puts it firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. Ezili is mostly just along for the ride in whomever’s head she currently occupies but sometimes, she can take over the reigns and influence what happens in our world. Ezili is the glue that holds the book together.
I found that idea really striking because on the one hand, Ezili embodies the lack of control all these women feel to a certain degree. Mer is a slave, so she literally cannot control her life, Jeanne relies on Baudelaire for money that she needs to survive and keep her mother alive as well. And Meritet is a prostitute who, while enjoying sex, does not get to pick her own partners and cannot go out and travel as she would like to.
And yet, each of these women is proactive; they take ahold of their life to the extent that they are able and they grasp on to any joy they possibly can. Considering the terrible situations all three women are in, this was a surprisingly empowering story.
This book was enjoyable from the beginning, but it grew on me more and more. For a long time, I couldn’t have told you what the actual plot is about but with a little patience (and reading up on the historical figures present in the novel), things became clearer. But even if there hadn’t beena story to follow, even if all there had been was glimpses into these three women’s lives, that would have been enough. Because the writing is just so damn good! Nalo Hopkinson weaves mythology, history, and sexuality into something new and wonderful. All her characters are vibrant, and even side characters who don’t appear all that often feel like real, proper people. The fact that real historical events and people are mixed into this fantastic narrative just makes this an even greater achievement.
I listened to this on audiobook, so of course I have to say a bit about the wonderful narration done by Bahni Turpin. She gave each character their own voice but she also managed to give each story line its own atmosphere. Where Mer and Jeanne are most distinguishable by their accents (although I wasn’t a fan of Turpin’s French accent), there is also a difference in how she reads each chapter. The pronunciation of French words was not great but because everything else about the narration was so fantastic, I would definitely recommend the audiobook.
MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!