Reading Nalo Hopkinson’s work makes me stretch. I don’t mean that literally: I pretzel myself to avoid interruption so I can read just one more story, just one more chapter, really, just one more page.
But even when my legs are wedged beneath me and toes beginning to tingle, a novel like The Salt Roads stretches the reader in me.
It stretches the writer as well. “With every new novel I discover something that you should never do as a novel writer,” said Nalo Hopkinson, speaking of her breast-feeding action-adventure heroine in her debut (Brown Girl in the Ring) and her second novel, which was written in Creole (Midnight Robber).*
The risk in The Salt Roads was the reach of time and space, from fourth-century Alexandria to eighteenth-century Haiti to nineteenth-century Paris.
The settings of her novels have been consistently vivid and striking (from the near-future Toronto in Brown Girl in the Ring to the Caribbean-colonized planets in Midnight Robber) and her skills as a short-story writer (evidenced in her collection Skin Folk) contribute to deft characterization and pacing.
In The Salt Roads, the reader’s connections to Mer (a healer on a Haitian sugar cane plantation) and Jeanne Duval (a woman of the stage who hopes her lover, Charles Baudelaire – the French poet who would later write a group of poems inspired by his Black Venus – will relieve her from her public performances in Paris and restrict her private ones) are drawn quickly and sharply.
The first half of the book concentrates on these two characters (and another overarching narrative voice) and the last half introduces Thais, an Alexandrian prostitute; while I admit to a preference for this kind of layering of narrative voices, it’s rare for me to feel an equally strong connection to each of the characters, as was the case with The Salt Roads.
Their voices are as strong and credible as those of Ti-Jeanne and Tan-Tan from her earlier work and the storytelling is consistently lush, whether relating a night-time swim, titillating lovemaking, or seasickness. The relationships built with these women are what enable me to stretch as a reader, to accompany them to times, places, and situations that I have never inhabited.
“Curfew soon,” Mer says one night on the plantation: “I was supposed to be in bed, but any of us with the brains the gods gave us knew how to catch a few hours for ourselves.” Each woman’s story reveals complex power dynamics like those in Mer’s life (between the plantation-owners and their wives, between the plantation managers and the slaves, between the house slaves and the field slaves, between the two-legged and four-legged animals).
Reading The Salt Roads brought to mind some other favourite Canadian novels, which also portray very specific times and places while cultivating a sense of timelessness and universality (like Larissa Lai’s When Fox is a Thousand, Kim Echlin’s Dagmar’s Daughter and Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon) and simultaneously found me reaching for several others which have gotten too comfortable on the To-Be-Read Shelves.
I read in What’s a Black Critic to Do?** that Nalo Hopkinson cried when she learned that the science fiction writer Samuel Delaney was black; I teared up just reading about it.
“It was company,” she said: “My universe had just doubled in size.” And that, you see, that is exactly how I felt when I finished The Salt Roads.
It doesn’t get much better than that feeling, does it?
Note: I read and reviewed this novel in 2004 but include the review here in preparation for my response to Nalo Hopkinson‘s more recent novel, The New Moon’s Arms, which I just started reading for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.
* Interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer, Challenging Destiny 12
** Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers by Donna Bailey Nurse (Insomniac Press, 2003)