THE GIRL IN THE ROAD
Crown Publishing Group
Kitschie Award Nominee
Locus List for Best Debut Author
James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winner
The problem with reviewing award nominees/winners is that that a lot of people have already tossed their opinions into the hat. In the case of Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road: A Novel, a quick and dirty Google search proclaims this book to be the darling of the mainstream “mundanes,”1 a shiny new favorite among NPR-listening sorts.
Honestly I have nothing against NPR, but I don’t find them covering the bleeding edge of science fiction. They tend to think post-apocalyptic science fiction started with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and that all of sci-fi’s well-worn tropes are these new shiny ideas that NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE, OMG HOW INVENTIVE AND QUIRKY! Except in quiet, thoughtful tones because anything smacking of “squee” would be unseemly and uneducated and make us more like the rabble who dare to enjoy “Scorpion King 4” and “Dracula: Untold.”
Yeah… so, all I can say is: thank god(s) I didn’t know that going in.
Perhaps I might have guessed that fifty pages in, The Girl in the Road would appeal to a mainstream audience. The language Byrne employs is very “I have an MFA, let me show you my skill in wielding the English language!” Luckily in this case that didn’t get in the way of a good story.
In fact, I will admit to judging all other writers I read following in comparison to Byrne’s ability to make me feel, hear, touch, smell and otherwise experience sensual detail. My first thought as I finished this book: “THIS is why some men balk at the idea of reading science fiction by women; here there is menstrual blood and fucking and food and body and all things female.” My impression was that everything in this novel was related as an experience, FELT and LIVED, in a way that might in fact be very alien to anyone not biologically forced to remember their body once a month.
Perhaps my above description turns you off, the way an NPR endorsement often does me. Here’s why you should read it anyway: it’s really good.
Not only is it as I describe above, but it’s also a riveting, action-packed tale of two women: one out of time, both on a journey, one traveling east from India to Africa, the other the same but in reverse. Both are somewhat unreliable narrators, but the places they travel and the stories they spin are lush and heartbreaking and beautiful. A futuristic vision where Africa and India are superpowers is a wonderfully original idea. (It has been done in science fiction before, despite what mundanes might suspect, but it’s never done ENOUGH.) The things Meena sees and the micro-civilizations she encounters on her walk across the Trail, the Trans-Arabian Linear wave-generating power-grid, are nothing short of amazing. Parts of Mariama’s story stray into magical realism territory (which isn’t always an easy sell for me, see: literary bias), but Byrne’s ability to make the physical body present in the center of a fantastical story carried me through those sections.
It’s been interesting to me, particularly in the wake of the fury over Tempest’s challenge, how female-centered the award nominee novels have been this year. This one, too, is very non-white, non-binary and non-gender-conforming in its vision of the future.
The future may in fact be female, queer, and non-white.