Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads is the first of four books I chose to read in preparation for Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival. Nalo Hopkinson was not on my radar before I learned that she was a festival attendee. Her press kit indicates that she born in Jamaica. She has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana and for the past 35 years in Canada. She is the author of six novels, a short story collection, and a small poetry collection. 

The Salt Roads opens in St. Domingue on a sugar plantation. There we meet Mer, a slave and healer. Learning how Mer makes potions to cure varying ailments of the slaves is fascinating. And I got a few laughs from her interactions with Ti-Bois, a slave child who follows behind her learning the craft. But there is tension between Mer and Makandal, a slave with the ability to transform himself into animals. Makandal wants the slaves to revolt while Mer opposes any idea that may bring harsh punishments to them. Makandal thinks that no punishment is worse than their current plight.Things go terribly wrong once Makandal convinces a small group to go along with the plan.

We meet Jeanne, a third generation “entertainer,” in Paris. She hopes that Charles, a rich writer, will decide to marry her since she now relies on him to support herself and help her purchase medicines for her aging mother. When Jeanne is not entertaining Charles or taking care of her mother, she is with her lover and friend Lisette who is also an entertainer. The dynamics of Charles and Jeanne's relationship takes a shocking turn when Jeanne falls ill and decides that Charles's money isn't enough for her to be happy.

We eventually come to know Thias who lives in Egypt. She’s a young prostitute that decides to run away but upon making it to her destination, she decides she has no choice but to continue using her body to pay her way. Unfortunately, I started losing patience with the book shortly after Thias is introduced.

As the narrative vacillates between the three sets of characters, the connection comes through the gods that occupy the characters' bodies. But I felt like the movement between storylines was unbalanced. I missed some characters while reading about others and the third set of characters seemed to come out of nowhere, appearing late in the book.

I wasn't aware that two of the storylines follow characters that are sex workers. So I didn’t expect there to be so many sex scenes. In addition, Hopkinson includes heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual interactions which I think is uncommon for one book and for a book set in the times of this one.

The verdict is still out for me on this author, but you can sign me up for more speculative fiction, including Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and my current read Redemption in Indigo.  If you have recommendations, leave them in the comments!

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Aarti said...

I think I have Sister Mine by Hopkinson to read on my Kindle and available for audiobook download from the library, so I may try that one next. She writes very differently than most other authors I've encountered, so I think I just need to get used to her. But I really liked her.

I've heard so many good things about Redemption in Indigo!

Shannon @ Reading Has Purpose said...

Yeah. I didn't want to make a final decision about her after just one book. I look forward to your thoughts on the next one.

I'm loving Redemption in Indigo! I'm loving Caribbean lit in general!

Buried In Print said...

There might be something to coming to this work as part of a chronological exploration of her work; I discovered her with her first novel and have followed along dutifully ever since, and I remember that The Salt Roads did make me really stretch (but in a good way).

I think my favourite of hers remains Midnight Robber (her second, I believe) but I know that the use of language in it requires that you slow down quite a bit and her New Moon's Arms is more accessible but with many similar qualities, so it might be a good place to begin. Glad to hear that you're not giving up: she is on my list of MustReadEverything authors!

Shannon @ Reading Has Purpose said...

Thanks Buried In Print. I thought I looked at most of her books before deciding on Brown Girl in the Ring but I don't remember the titles you mention. I'll have another look.