The Salt Roads

Nalo Hopkinson‘s new novel, The Salt Roads, is, I think, the best book she has done. Rather than fantastic fiction set in future (Brown Girl in the Ring) or alternative (Midnight Robber) worlds, The Salt Roads is a work of historical fiction, albeit a “magical realist” rather than a naturalistic one. It weaves together the stories of three black women from different places and times, who each has her own inclinations and moods: Mer, a slave on a plantation in 18th century Haiti, who does not live to see liberation; Meritet, slave/prostitute in 4th-century Alexandria, who ends up becoming a kind of saint (claimed by the Christians though not really one of them); and Jeanne Duvall, for many years Charles Baudelaire’s mistress. All three women are inhabited, at one point or another by a spirit, the loa/goddess Ezili (I think – the word “loa” is never actually used in the text), whose free-floating voice and perspective provide a counterpoint to those of the three women. (There are also a few passages written in an omniscient third person).
The Salt Roads is a dense and passionate book, fluctuating between visionary hopes of revolution and a better world, and the grimly pragmatic necessity of negotiating possibilities of resignation at least, and perhaps even flashes of happiness, in oppressive and straightened circumstances. Hopkinson’s work is similar to a number of other recent books by other black women authors (the book jacket blurbs compare her to Toni Morrison and Edwige Danticat); but what’s unique to her is the particular voice that speaks in this book: or perhaps I should say voice(s), because of the way she/it is both one and many; the transversal communication of the three women through Ezili, in a way that doesn’t absorb them into one (they never become aware of one another), but also doesn’t permit them to remain in isolation from one another, is what gives this novel its emotional resonance, as it reminds its readers of what black women have historically had to face (and to a great extent, still do) in a way that is necessarily unfamiliar to white male readers such as myself; but also without giving a simplistic, inspirational message of fortitude and strength in the face of adversity, which is something many white (and a few black as well) readers like to get from black women’s texts.
I’m describing this novel from the outside, I fear, having read it in constant consciousness that it is not addressed to me; but the strength of The Salt Roads, I think, resides precisely in its outsideness, its indirectness, its non-address. This means, among other things, that it cannot be pigeonholed as an exercise in “identity politics” – even as it also (rightly) rejects the way that accusations of “identity politics” are often a cover, and a crass excuse, for ignoring and dismissing the injuries of class, race, and gender altogether.
Nothing’s really resolved in this book, precisely as nothing’s really resolved in the course of history (situations shift, and their problems may be forgotten but are not resolved/redeemed for good). All three women end by finding a sort of happiness, but not one that erases the scars of the past, or changes the conditions that produced all that suffering. What we’re left with, instead, is a series of flashes, or glimpses, of happiness and pain, of beauty and horror, of ecstatic (and not-so-ecstatic) sexuality, and of the small details of everyday life, in 19th century France, 18th century Haiti, 4th century Alexandria and Palestine. This book is a journey, not for the sake of some goal or final resting point, but for the sake of the journey itself.

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