The Salt Roads is a beautiful, brutal, crystalline and ambiguous novel tracing the lives of three women of the African diaspora and one mystical spirit. The principal characters are: Mer, an enslaved woman who is a healer and worker on a sugar cane plantation on Saint Domingue during the early stages of the slave rebellion of the late 18th century; Jeanne Duval, the Creole mistress of 19th century French decadent poet Charles Baudelaire; and Thaïs (or Meritet) a sex worker in early Christian-era Alexandria, who in this story inadvertently becomes Saint Mary of Egypt (combining the legends of two early desert saints). They are tied together in this story not only in sharing a cultural and racial heritage, and by the experience of not having ownership over their own bodies--whether in a formal sense in the case of Thaïs and Mer, or due to economic necessity, in the case of Jeanne. But they also share the hosting of an entity--call her a goddess perhaps, although it takes a while for her to come (back?) to that understanding of herself--who shares their experiences and can sometimes guide or control their actions, using the imagery of a Vodou deity riding them (although I don’t think that word is used). Thaïs and Mer are open to understanding these visits as a religious experience, though Jeanne seems largely unaware of her guest.
But that’s just the bare bones of the structure. I would say that this novel defies plot summarization--it doesn’t have that kind of arc, being unmoored in time with the sequence of scenes for each of the three human characters being interleaved across the ages representing how their spirit guest experiences them, moving back and forth as she’s able. And she has her own quest of discovery and self-awareness whose goal is the making of those connections across time. I call this a “brutal” novel and it’s one where the concept of “happy ending” has no meaning, except to the extent that each individual may succeed in making choices that she won’t regret and taking what measure of autonomy over her life that she’s able to grasp.
The prose and exposition is the sort that delights me, where the reader is plunged into an unfamiliar world and acquainted with it through the immediate experiences of the characters. Though, to be fair, I’m not going to discount the usefulness of having at least a passing familiarity with the history of Saint Dominque, with the French decadent poets, and with early Christian hagiography. It’s a novel that rewards coming to it with a broad historical literacy and it won’t hold your hand if you don’t meet it halfway.
One thing I always appreciate in stories that are woman-centered like this is the easy and unremarkable inclusion of the wide variety of affectional and erotic bonds that women can have with each other, even while participating in the obligatory heterosexuality of the dominant culture. All three women have a rich variety of bonds with other women that include, without not necessarily focusing on, romantic and sensual relations. (I had something of an epiphany with regards to this element in the context of representation in fiction that is going to turn into a separate essay.)
The Salt Roads is a deep and powerful story about surviving and thriving and connecting with personal and cultural roots (the essence of the quest that the unifying divine spirit comes to understand). It explores exciting structural territory and narrative rhythms, not only in the non-temporality, but in the use of interleaved voices and shifts of mode. This book left me thoroughly satisfied as a reading experience.