Monica Byrne’s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, breaks into the world of sci-fi with a forceful voice and a demanding presence. It offers a great change of pace to the overwhelming amount of post-apocalyptic stories out there right now. Instead, it tells the story of a world that doesn’t seem so unfathomable.
The Girl in the Road takes place in India, Africa and on a floating chain of energy-harnessing scales that spans the ocean between the two. It’s alternating chapters tell the story of two women, Meena and Mariama, both of whom are on journeys to escape their past. Symbols and connections overlap the two women’s stories, but it isn’t until the novel’s shocking climax that we learn how they are connected.
Meena is running away from an apparent attempt on her life. She ends up traveling across The Trail, a new type of technology, created by the giant corporation HydraCorp, that harnesses the energy of the Arabian Sea. Mariama travels the width of Africa, from Mauritania to Ethiopia, in search of a life better than the one of slavery she previously knew. The two women’s stories do not exist in the same time. Meena’s story takes place over a couple of months, while Mariama’s takes place over most of her life. When their stories do intersect, however, it is in a wholly unexpected way.
As visceral as Meena and Mariama’s stories are, though, Byrne, sometimes takes away from them with an overuse of sci-fi plot devices. Semena Werk, the organization who Meena believes to be after her, is never fully-realized. Throughout the novel it remains an unexplained, and ultimately unnecessary, force to move the plot. Byrne has a masters degree in geochemistry, which lends a wonderful authenticity to the science in her story, but she often spends too much time on the scientific mumbo-jumbo, and the story slows way down. Also, the snake, the main symbolic motif throughout the novel, is over utilized. Rather than letting the reader make the symbolic connections on her own, Byrne forces the connections on the reader. There are a lot of things going on in The Girl in the Road, so much so that the story sometimes seems confused, as if it’s not sure what it’s really about, but they aren’t harmful enough to ruin the story.
As much as Byrne stumbles in some areas, she excels in others. Much of the technology in her book is grounded enough to seem like realistic things we can expect from the future, and it’s exciting to read a sci-fi story that puts forward ideas that might actually come to pass. Byrne also takes this opportunity to address not just the technology of the future, but the sociology of it as well. The LGBTQ community has made great strides toward equality, and people are much more comfortable with sexuality in general. India’s caste system exists mainly in the minds of the older characters, with the younger ones embracing a culture where money doesn’t have to determine your status in life. Africa has become the new mecca for humanity, “the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt.” Byrne puts forward the thought that America will not always remain the superpower it is now. One day we will all go back to where we began.
The Girl in the Road ends on a bit of a confusing note. A lot of things are left unexplained. In the end though, it is an excellent debut from Monica Byrne. I read it in four days. I could not put it down. So if you’re looking for something new and exciting to read, The Girl in the Road is it.
*FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.