Under the Radar: The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne)

Article by liz

“Let’s go around the room and each say a fact about ourselves.”

Hands-down, that’s my least favorite icebreaker in the world. It’s basically “Get ready for an entire room of strangers to judge you based on one fact you have less than ten seconds to make up.” Too much pressure. I hate it. So, in high school, I decided on a stock response: “I’m Liz, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I wanted to make sure everyone got the right impression.

I want to make sure you get the right impression of me, too. I’m not hip. My interests are not super highbrow, not necessarily arty or literary. I was raised on genre fiction, high fantasy, and utopian sci-fi. I was lucky to fall hard for Shakespeare in high school, because that means I have a “literary” answer to “Who’s your favorite author?” And while Bill is truly, undeniably, definitely my soul mate--just between you and me? It’s really David Eddings, high fantasy master of the quest for a magical blue object. Interested? I’ll loan you one of his books. I own twenty-two of them. They’ve taught me more about storytelling and character and dialogue than anything I’ve ever read, but they’ll never be taught in classrooms.

I think that’s a shame. So I’m here to tell you about the best books that fly under the “literary” radar.

Monica Byrne’s debut novel, THE GIRL IN THE ROAD, came out last summer, and is newly in paperback. It’s a phenomenal work of science fiction, set fifty years in the future in Africa, India, and the Middle East. It’s the story of Meena, who flees India on the run and heads for The Trail, an energy-harvesting bridge across the Arabian Sea; it’s also the story of Mariama, an escaped slave girl, journeying across the Sahara desert to Addis Ababa.

I picked it up because Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Helene Wecker, and Kim Stanley Robinson (some of my favorite people) had blurbed it, and because Byrne is a fellow Wellesley College alumna. This told me two things: 1) I had to buy it immediately because Go Blue, and 2) this book would have fantastically realized female characters, with their own agency and amazing stories.

I was so, so right.

Meena and Mariama are vastly different women whose narratives twine and intertwine and finally meet. Meena is an adult when we meet her; Mariama, a child, thirty years earlier. Meena’s in a manic state for the first half of the book, making her thoughts chaotic and fluttering, while Mariama’s experiences are filtered by her youth, by the way she tells them all as a story to her protector, Yemaya. But their journeys force them both to confront the darkest things in themselves--the way the best science fiction does.

This book is some of the best science fiction in years. It uses future technology, a strong vision of the shifting global landscape, and a powerful emotional core to present Meena and Mariama’s stories. It focuses on women, whose loves span an incredible array of genders and experiences. It looks at sex unflinchingly, as an integral part of life and growth and pain. Maybe most importantly, it’s not full of white people. I was raised on Western, European-derived high fantasy in the Tolkien tradition, and while it’s dear to me, it doesn’t make sense for a genre designed to imagine the unreal to keep treading the same racial and gendered waters over and over.

THE GIRL IN THE ROAD is science fiction grounded in places not commonly seen in science fiction published here in the States. South India, the Sahara, Addis Ababa, and the Arabian Sea are as much a presence in this book as the characters. Without othering those places or using them as mere props, Byrne shows the humanity that fills them, and the humanity at the core of the story. It’s about the divine feminine; it’s about sex and gender, about violence and abuse masquerading as love and how that can affect the rest of a person’s life. It’s a deep, probing, brutal story. It’s lyrically written and it stays with you.

There’s this misconception that science fiction abandons great writing and human concerns for the sake of wild speculation, when any genre fan will tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth--especially for books like THE GIRL IN THE ROAD. I refuse to say that it’s great “despite” being sci-fi, or that it’s “more than sci-fi,” because that’s a disservice to my favorite genre. It’s great because it’s sci-fi--because it imagines a world that’s more than ours and uses that world to tell a gripping, powerful story. That’s what the hardest-hitting fiction does: it turns up the volume on reality.

The Girl in the Road: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780804138864
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Broadway Books - February 17th, 2015

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