The Salt Roads - Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads

by Nalo Hopkinson

“I’m born from countless journeys chained tight in the bellies of ships. Born from hope vibrant and hope destroyed. Born of bitter experience. Born of wishing for better.”

It’s hard to describe The Salt Roads. It’s an interweaving of three disparate historical legends and an exploration of gods and archetypes, but it uses these fragments to try to construct a far larger story. The story starts with Mer, a slave in Saint Domingue, but later weaves in two more, with the goddess Ezili as the link between the characters. It was only after the introduction of Jeanne Duval that I realized that the novel not only involved historical settings but also women who became legends themselves.

In the novel, salt is not only the taste of blood and sweat and tears, the essence of the sea that carried the slave ships, but also as “the white man’s obeah” that bound the slaves to the new land. In reality, the salt roads were trade routes, essential connections between distant lands. In the same way, the gods travel the salt roads within the “storystream”:

“I, we, flow out of the ebb, tread the wet roads of tears, of blood, of salt, break like waves into our infinite selves.”

The writing alternates between the strong dialectic speech of the characters and vivid lyricism. The chapters of the novel are framed as a chant that carries the themes of the story.

I tend to shy away from novels that use real people as protagonists, partly because I have some sneaking sense that it is disrespectful to so fully appropriate another person’s life, but mainly because it is so very restrictive. For me, this became an issue in the novel, and with Jeanne’s story in particular. I found Jeanne a very static and not particularly likeable or interesting character. She seemed far more enslaved than either Thais or Mer, though she is the only one who is free. She is a victim, but her chains are of her own making.

[My view of Jeanne as an agentless puppet was not improved by the way Ezili kept taking her over.
I loved the way that the salt road blockage was in some ways tied to silencing women--in Mer’s case, quite literally--but even so, Jeanne’s story just didn’t feel satisfying.]

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Thais’ story had an ironic twist I enjoyed to the full, but like Jeanne, she felt flat to me. Mer’s parts of the story were the ones that enthralled me. Unlike the others, Mer is not herself a historical figure, at least as far as I can tell from a bit of Wikipedia-hunting. As she is a nameless shadow on the outskirts of Francois Makandal’s story, Hopkinson had far more freedom in constructing Mer than Jeanne or even Thais, and I think that this might be why Mer has so much more dimensionality. In some ways, I think the story is an uneasy blend of history and fiction; constrained by the truth, few of the stories came to a satisfying climax, and though I understand the framing concept, the stories still felt disconnected.

[Jeanne’s story seemed particularly out of place. I get that Ezili got in via the bowl of piss, but why was she trapped in Jeanne? Why was Jeanne’s story even so significant? How is it emblematic of the greater story Ezili seeks to tell?
Similarly, I found Mer’s interactions with Lasiren vastly disappointing. The salt road blockage is thrust aside and forgotten, then handwaved away. Similarly, while I loved the idea of Thais as Mary of Egypt, she didn’t seem a good fit for Ezili to visit in the first place.]

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In some ways, I think the book might have been too ambitious; I would have loved to see Hopkinson abandon the attempt at universality and instead focus only on Mer’s story, which is rich enough for a novel in itself. Even so, Hopkinson is a talented writer with a fascinating story to tell, and in The Salt Roads, she displays her gift for combining suspense and symbolism, history and heartache.

I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Open Roads Integrated Media, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!