The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Warner Books
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Kate Savage

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The Salt Roads is a fabulist tale of three women and the spirit Ezili conjured up at the graveside of a stillborn child. The collective consciousness of Africans make up the salt roads and it is the salt roads that Ezili and others like her travel. The action starts in Saint Domingue in the turbulent years before the slave revolt that freed Haiti. Mer is a slave, healer and mystic on a plantation. She breaks her middle-aged back cutting cane. In an economy that kills most slaves inside of 10 years, she had the wits to survive over 12 and helped many others along the way. Mer is part of a love triangle – – she loves Tipingee who is her part-time lover but Tipingee is married to the revolutionary Patrice. The painful process of revolution is not something Mer can avoid because in addition to the dangers from the white ruling class, slaves kill fellow slaves who they suspect are collaborators. Mer lives in a dangerous, brutal and ugly place. Ezili gives Mer the seemingly impossible task of keeping the salt roads flowing.

Ezili flows through space and time, slipping into and out of the bodies of others when their concentration strays. Ezili spends 20 plus years with the mixed blood show girl/prostitute/mistress Jeanne Duval who lives in Paris in the early 1840s. Left to her own devices, Jeanne would likely spend her days with her beloved Lise. However, the prospects for bi-racial women were harshly circumscribed and Jeanne settled on being the mistress of Charles Baudelaire. Charles is white and from a family of means but has chosen a bohemian life style. Charles seems to love Jeanne in his own dysfunctional way but the taint of race and sexual objectification mars the relationship. Jeanne’s feelings for Charles are more ambivalent and hardheaded. She is a product of her time.

Thais is the fourth major character in The Salt Roads. Her story starts in Alexandria, Egypt in 345 C.E. Thais is both a prostitute and a slave. She is a freer character than either Jeanne or Mer. Thais is a slave but at a time when slavery wasn’t a vicious institution as it was in Saint Domingue. Slaves could buy their freedom and some individuals even sold themselves into slavery to escape the boonies. Prostitution and race did not mangle the spirit the way it mangled Jeanne. On a lark, Thais escapes with a fellow prostitute slave because she wants to travel and see a specific church she has heard of. Off the two go and along the way in a strange twist of fate, Thais becomes known as Saint Mary of Egypt.

The Salt Roads is not an easy book to read and is not for the passive. It is raw, powerful and often disturbing. There is a scene involving a chamber pot that I suspect will become infamous if it isn’t already. Mer is the likeable heart and soul of the book. Her story of life on the plantation is the most dramatic. Jeanne is a challenging character because she is not always likeable or admirable as Mer but she is nonetheless marvelous. I found myself turning pages in the wee hours and rushing through the end of the book to see what fate had in store for Jeanne. Thais is the character who seemed the least developed. She is useful for contrast and is interesting but there isn’t much meat to her. Ezili fascinates as she involves and develops consciousness.

In writing The Salt Roads, Hopkinson contributes a meaningful and imaginative work. Several of the characters in the book are historical characters. I enjoy a well-done traditional fantasy but it is refreshing to read a book that is not from a white, romantic viewpoint. I recommend this book to readers who are interested in something atypical and well written. I would not recommend this book for readers who are uncomfortable explicit sex or for those looking for light romance. The Salt Roads is full throttle and with an extra dose of wasabi.

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