Book Review: The Girl In The Road, By Monica Byrne

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My friend Sarah first introduced me to the concept of the “sacred text” – a book that’s such a headlong rush of philosophies wrapped up in vivid characters that fans of the book run around pushing the book at people like some sort of strange Jehova’s Witness program.  They do this because the book reflected some vital part of their soul, saying the secret things that lurked so deeply within their hearts that they didn’t even realize they felt that way until they found this author speaking for them.
The example given was Cat Valente, who taps into people’s veins deeply with The Orphan’s Tales and Palimpsest.
But with The Girl In The Road, Monica Byrne hits another vein – a close one to Cat’s, but different enough that I think she’s gonna be one of the debut authors of the year.   As does Neil Gaiman, who called this sucker, “Glorious. . . . So sharp, so focused and so human.
Now, full disclosure: Monica was a Clarion classmate of mine, so of course I love her dearly.  But her book pulls off a mightily difficult trick that few authors manage, and does it with such transparency you might not even realize it’s going on: she writes about a manic-depressive so that you utterly see the world through her eyes.
Truth is, I’m not sure what Meena is, because there’s not an official diagnosis of her troubles.  But Meena is vibrantly and impulsively alive, bisexual, sleeping with who she chooses, running after her dreams with vigor and perhaps not nearly enough forethought.  She wakes at the beginning of the novel to find that a snake has bitten her in an assassination attempt engineered by her enemies, and so must flee India.  She chooses, unwisely, to escape via The Trail – a 500 mile-long series of narrow floating platforms crossing the Arabian Sea, which harvest energy from the wave movements.  So begins her harrowing journey.
But The Girl In The Road isn’t really about plot.  It’s about living in the moment with Meena, whose relentless enthusiasm and certainty makes her one of the most flawed characters I’ve ever seen – and yet all of Meena’s decisions make perfect sense when filtered through Monica’s manic, delightful, and compelling prose.  You watch as Meena decides that this is what she must do, then discards it effortlessly because she’s been wrong all along, this is what she must do.  She sleeps with men and women and then leaves them, she opens up then hides, she goes from sunny to sullen in a heartbeat.
Yet for all of that, you can’t help but admire Meena, because Meena is unashamed of who she is.  She’s the perfect example of an active character, one who makes decisions – and she’s making them in a gloriously multicultural world, rich and detailed, one where the complex overspill of all the cultures in the Indian regions mesh and Meena must navigate all the languages and embedded cultural privileges that make this feel like a genuine, battered-yet-functional future.  There’s a lot of new technology floating around here, but it certainly hasn’t solved all the world’s problems.  If anything, it’s just complicated them.
Intertwined with this is the tale of Mariama, a young girl in Africa who’s forced to flee her home and takes up with a caravan of smugglers.  Meena’s and Marima’s fates are, of course, intertwined.
Thing is, this isn’t a perfect novel.  Then again, the sacred texts rarely are – they’re outpourings from the heart, jumbled and complicated as life, a thousand philosophies spilled onto the page.  And I rocketed through The Girl in the Road because I wanted to follow these characters, who didn’t think at all like I did and made terrible decisions, but hoo boy did I know a lot of people just like them, and I felt as though it explained something to me about them that I didn’t understand at the time.  This isn’t my sacred text, but I think there’s going to be a lot of women who pick this up and feel the pull of Meena and Mariama, who are so thoroughly and perfectly themselves that you have to wonder if they’re broken or yet completely functional in alternative ways that can’t be properly described.
What you get with The Girl In The Road are characters who feel more human than I’ve felt from any mere novel in a long time.  It’s a novel with a pulse.  And since it’s her debut novel, I’d suggest taking a look at it as soon as possible, either by downloading the preview or preordering the book – I think you want to get on-board Monica’s vibe as soon as possible.

2 Comments

  1. nikki @bookpunks
    May 15, 2014

    I have been really looking forward to this one since I saw someone talking about it online. Now the moreso.

    • TheFerrett
      May 15, 2014

      It’s got some brutal, brutal scenes in it, but the reviews are mixed in the best way: 1s and 5s. Almost no 3s.

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