Two quests: Durham playwright releases debut novel

May. 23, 2014 @ 09:59 AM

“The Girl in the Road”
By Monica Byrne (Crown Publishers, $26)

Durham-based playwright Monica Byrne’s debut novel “The Girl in the Road” is an engrossing, thought-provoking work of science fiction and speculative fiction, one rich in symbolism.
Byrne creates a future world that is believable yet at times magical, even hallucinatory. Set in the mid-21st century, Byrne’s world is a place where many contemporary ills have been solved. Sexually transmitted diseases have been eliminated because of advances in vaccines and antibiotics, and contraceptives have been perfected. The world has developed a stronger, seemingly more universal tolerance of lesbians, gays and transgendered people, and, judging from the fact that two women narrate this story, the rights of women also has advanced.
But in Byrne’s future, some things stay the same. Nations still grope for the solution to the energy crisis. The silver bullet in this novel is metallic hydrogen, a volatile substance that if brought under control would solve many of the world’s energy problems. Global warming has advanced, and the world awaits the day when the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet will collapse, setting off “the wave,” or a worldwide tsunami.  
Political imperialism still exists, as do class, racial and religious prejudices. Byrne’s novel is set in Ethiopia and India, which have become intertwined through migration. India has taken over Ethiopia culturally and politically. Because Indians as a rule treat Ethiopians as inferior, a student-led political movement arises to try and throw off that influence.
Our first narrator, Meena, is orphaned because of that movement. Her parents, both doctors from India who are serving at a hospital in Ethiopia, are killed during the 2040 election, when the pro-India forces retake the legislative seats. One morning, Meena  awakens with snake bites. She fears that a political group called Semena Werk has tried to kill her using a poisonous snake.
She flees India, headed for Djibouti, then Ethiopia, to find out more about her parents’ deaths. An Indian company called HydraCorp has built an experimental bridge called the Trans-Arabian Linear Generator, using metallic hydrogen, from Mumbai across the Arabian Sea to Djibouti. Travel is officially forbidden on the bridge, but Meena takes her chances.
Hers is a Homeric quest: She must retrain her muscles to move with the rhythms of the sea. She meets several “seastead” settlers who help her as she makes her way through several tests, or “chambers.” Along the way, she sees dead bodies, which may or may not be hallucinations. She meets the lotus eaters, and to continue her journey, must either tell them a story or give them her desalination bottle. The home that Meena ultimately finds is not just a physical place but a sense of peace and belonging. This bridge is both literal and symbolic.
The story of the second narrator, Mariama, is set several decades before. Mariama, a slave to an upper-class family in West Africa, escapes her circumstances and stows away on a truck carrying “oil” (really metallic hydrogen) to Ethiopia. There she meets Yemaya (meaning “goddess of the ocean”), who befriends her and becomes her mentor, encouraging her to attend school. On her journey, Mariama also has visions, including the girl referred to in the book’s title, who delivers her a message of empowerment.
As these two stories move back and forth, we learn of the many ways that the characters Meena and Mariama, as well as their journeys, are related, and the common history they share.
Byrne (whose new play “Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo” is now playing at Manbites Dog Theater) has written a rich, multi-layered book. She weaves the elements of science fiction and speculative fiction with myth, spirituality and philosophical speculation, all while creating a page-turning story. “The Girl in the Road” is meant to be enjoyed, pondered, and re-read.


Monica Byrne will sign copies of her novel at 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham. Byrne also will read from the novel at 11 a.m. June 14 at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, Pittsboro.