Birth of a Goddess
The Salt Roads is Nalo Hopkinson's third and most ambitious novel. The
narrative spans centuries, jumping back and forth between three primary characters.
Mer, a slave and midwife on the island of Saint Domingue, mourns the passing
of a stillborn child with her lover and a third woman, the baby's mother. Their
collective mourning, along with the watery grave given to the dead child, is
a ritual powerful enough to birth a new goddess, Ezili.Ezili, who goes by many
names throughout history, becomes the bridge between the three primary characters
as she is able to move from time to time by appearing to, inhabiting, and sometimes
even possessing humans (Mer amongst them). However, Ezili finds herself unable
to travel freely through the lives of her people and is trapped for much of
her infancy in the life of Jeanne Duval, a Parisian dancer who becomes the mistress
of Charles Baudelaire. The third and final major protagonist and vehicle for
Ezili is Meritet, a Nubian prostitute who leaves Egypt to travel to Jerusalem.
Hopkinson is clearly flexing her creative muscles with this book, and it shows
how gifted she can be. Our perspective slips rapidly and effortlessly between
points of view — some chapters are told solely by one character, and others
share storytelling equally between human and goddess or even jump between centuries
without ever leaving the reader behind. Over the course of the book, we even
see some key scenes from multiple perspectives as Ezili looks in through multiple
sets of eyes.
Ezili is a goddess of love and sex, amongst other things, and the narrative
manages to be both sensual and frankly sexual at the same time. I found its
depiction of bisexuality and sexual orientation to be refreshingly honest and
real. At the same time, we also see the intense suffering the characters face
through the course of their lives. In many ways, The Salt Roads is a
paean to the liberating power of sexuality, and the way life wins out over hardship
even if those that contribute to eventual victories never live to see them.
Despite the many layers of meaning and the complexity of the story, there
is a little to find fault with here. The story of Meritet is probably the least
developed of the three; I was never fully satisfied as to why she had to travel
to Jerusalem and inspire stories of St. Mary of Egypt, or why that was important
to Ezili. The novel ends just as Ezili truly comes alive, and with her the oppressed
people she watches over. The narrative becomes a little less clear in a handful
of these later passages, but the deeply symbolic religious themes Hopkinson
depicts are not meant to be easily grasped. I found the ending more tantalizing
than frustrating. Hopkinson's endings tend to leave much unspoken; as always,
I would definitely read a sequel, but the novel certainly does not require it.
Nalo Hopkinson is a talent who not only promises to achieve great things in
the future, but also delivers them in the present with The Salt Roads.