The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

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imageI’m born from song and prayer. A small life, never begun, lends me its unused vitality. I’m born from mourning and sorrow and three women’s tearful voices. I’m born from countless journeys chained tight in the bellies of ships. Born from hope vibrant and hope destroyed. Born of bitter experience. Born of wishing for better. I’m born.

Three women, from different times and in different places, pray to the goddess Lasirèn, a goddess of love. Their prayers call her to life, and she answers each of them, staying with them throughout their lives. All three women are of African descent, trapped in slavery of some sort far away from their homeland, and the Salt Roads of the title refer to the connection these women have to their African heritage.

The first woman we meet is Mer, a healer and a slave on a plantation in the French colony of San Domingue (now Haiti). She prays to Lasirèn when a child she has delivered is stillborn, and the goddess appears to her, asking her to help ‘keep the Salt Roads open’ (that is, remember the African gods and culture). Mer is the only one of the three women who is not an historical figure, but her story is closely linked with that of Franscois Mackandal, a Haitian revolutionary guerilla leader. Throughout the book, she struggles with the conflict between wanting to escape her life of slavery, and the responsibility to make life better for her fellow slaves by healing them and by keeping African culture alive.

The second woman is Jeanne Duval (also called Lemer), half-Haitian mistress of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Lasirèn spends the majority of the book with Jeanne, trapped inside her head, only escaping to visit other people when Jeanne is asleep or distracted. Although not a slave in literal terms, Jeanne is forced to be a rich man’s mistress in order to get the money for her and her sick mother to survive, and having found such a man, keep him happy so that he will continue paying for them. We follow Jeanne from when she is a young woman, having just met Charles, into old age, when she finds happiness at last.

Thirdly, there is Thais, also called Meritet, a young Nubian girl working as a prosititute in Alexandria in the 4th Century AD. Lasirèn, unable to travel herself except by influencing the human body she happens to be in, feels drawn to Aelia Capitolina (the new Roman name for Jerusalem) and persuades Thais to travel there, working as a prostitute to pay her fare. This is a humanised version of the story of St. Mary of Egypt.

All three women are subject to some sort of slavery, but through the influence of the goddess, manage to find a kind of peace by the end of their lives. The Salt Roads is not just about mythology in that it features a goddess as a character, it’s also about how myths follow and adapt to the new circumstances of their believers.

The Salt Roads is available from Amazon.

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