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A feminist update of the classic pilgrimage story

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Durham playwright Monica Byrne's first novel, THE GIRL IN THE ROAD, is a work of speculative fiction set about half a century from now.

The oceans are rising. Africa is the ascendant world economic power (after the U.S., China and India all had turns). Heroine Meena wakes up in Mumbai with mysterious snake bites on her torso and feels the urge to go to Ethiopia, where she was born and her parents were murdered. Her quest will illuminate both the lightness and heaviness of identity, which can be put on and shed at will in Byrne's crowded, urban, migratory world. But origins are still inescapable.

Meena is a fun travel companion: a polyamorous, bold, sharp-witted ass-kicker. She learns about the Trail, an energy-harnessing bridge spanning the Arabian Sea, and is warned that no one who has tried to walk it has returned. The Trail is an engineering project of HydraCorp—"Hydra" as in the multi-headed sea monster that shits and breathes poison, a great name for an evil multinational. Meena sets out on the Trail to North Africa, meeting travelers and small encampments along the way.

The other half of the book, set about 30 years before Meena makes her trip, is narrated by Mariama, a young orphan of uncertain West African descent. Mariama is traumatized and alone until she encounters a convoy transporting barrels of oil across the Sahara. She meets a woman who teaches her English and encourages her to settle in Ethiopia, where political unrest threatens to unseat the government.

Though usually alone on the Trail, Meena maintains an inner conversation with people from her past, especially her lover Mohini, a transgender woman who performs the rites of a "hijra," the ancient South Asian term for people of a "third gender." Details like this give the clearest idea of what Byrne's future looks like. The novel is filled with dislocated identities and origins. Young people identify as transgender and transracial—one of Meena's sexual conquests from college transitioned from "Anglo to Desi." "He was misguided. But he was also fucking hot," she says. And Meena, as the grandchild of a Catholic and a Hindu, can choose from a grab-bag of traditions and spiritual practices to make sense of herself and the world.

Still, she longs for roots. She recalls seeing a statue of her namesake, Meenakshi, an avatar of the Hindu feminine divine. "I looked at her and felt like I wasn't answerable for anything I'd done and I was free of all family, all history all circumstances," Meena says. "Like I was free of context and could reenter the world as a baby."

Mariama, unsure of her ancestry, seeks an identity from whomever is around, with disturbing consequences. When it becomes clear how the lives of these two women intersect, the philosophical underpinnings of the novel are revealed. Byrne's interest in identity is spiritual, informed by Hindu concepts of rebirth and fate.

The Girl in the Road builds slowly, but the plot twists in the third act are worth the wait. In unadorned, clearly descriptive prose, Byrne moves briskly from scene to scene. The author traveled to India, the South Pacific and Ethiopia for research, and it shows in authentic-feeling details about the terrain, social classes and political and religious sects.

I initially assumed Meena's snakebites were part of a HydraCorp conspiracy and that she would eventually confront a corporate bad guy. But Byrne's book is more fatalistic than that. HydraCorp doesn't need to meddle in the lives of these characters because that battle is over. Corporate power, like the rising ocean, has nearly consumed the planet. Instead, the main revelation is personal and shared by the two heroines. It makes The Girl in the Road a deeply felt, troubling and memorable story.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Byrne Notice".

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