Can you write about the future these days without it being apocalyptic? It's not clear whether Monica Byrne was trying to answer that question in her debut novel, The Girl in the Road — but she does it anyway. Taking place near the end of the 21st century in India and Africa — as well as on a high-tech bridge that spans the Indian Ocean between the two — the book isn't short on misery, tragedy or violence. It certainly isn't optimistic. At the same time, it gracefully dodges the apocalypse-mongering that's become all but de rigueur in near-future science fiction.
Meena and Mariama are the central characters of The Girl in the Road, and their stories are told in stereo. As the story hops back and forth between them, these two young women — separated by decades and continents — undergo travels and transformations. Mariama, an Ethiopian refugee, crosses Africa with a group of smugglers who are transporting something far more dangerous than they claim. Years later, Meena — wounded and being chased by what appears to be a terrorist organization — embarks by foot on a track across the Trail, a marvel of energy-collecting, metallic-hydrogen technology that bridges the Indian Ocean. The image of the Trail is primal and indelible, and Byrne milks it for all its considerable worth.
Although they don't quite exist simultaneously, Meena and Mariama's threads run in eerie parallels. In particular, they experience distinct sexual awakenings that form a whole unto themselves. It's all part of Byrne's nuanced yet viscerally potent exploration of sexuality, one of The Girl in the Road's many strengths. There's a lyricism to her prose that's both blunt and deceptively dimensional. When Meena's traversal of the Trail takes a turn for the hallucinatory — the kind of stuff that, like a bad sex scene, can sink a sci-fi book — it's delivered with all the vivid, haunting poignancy of a vision quest. Byrne has every opportunity to turn The Girl in the Road into a cautionary tale. She opts for a poetic approach that rings more like magic realism and mythology than alarmist sci-fi prophecy.
At the same time, Byrne overstuffs the book with sci-fi spectacle. From the shadowy network known as Semena Werk to the megacorporation called HydraCorp, the pulpiest of genre mysteries are shoved into the narrative, only to be neglected or resolved anti-climactically. Byrne, who holds a master's degree in geochemistry, occasionally lapses into lumps of tech jargon that don't serve a purpose other than to slam on the brakes. Formidable themes such as transsexualism and quantum reality are introduced, then left underdeveloped. At one point, she seems to be hinting that the Trail could serve as a Noah's Ark as the oceans continue to rise (a calamity that seems in no way urgent in the book). But nothing comes of that tantalizing notion. There are 10 novels' worth of ideas here, and few are explored in depth. The result is a ragged patchwork of concepts, interconnections and intriguing possibilities, many of which wind up as red herrings.
That frustrating patchwork is symptomatic of a larger issue: Byrne's unwillingness to rein in her staggering array of ideas, images and interconnections. She throws so many into the mix, they become diluted and muddled. The most glaring example is the book's overriding motif, the snake, which pops up in some fresh, contrived context repeatedly — and, ultimately, repetitiously — throughout the book. Handled with a lighter touch, such symbolism might have been profound. Instead it comes across as too self-conscious, too wrapped up in its own cleverness.
The book's other big problem is its ending. Like trains on a single track rushing toward each other, Meena and Mariama are hurled along their respective storylines until they crash in a sickening tangle of tragedy. Furthermore, that collision is handled in such a grisly, shock-tactic way, it nearly drains the well of sympathy that Byrne has masterfully filled for them. Even worse, it's already happened, and the only climax to the story is in the act of remembering. No matter how they struggle or strive, Meena and Mariama can never escape their entwined fates. They belong to an unalterable past. These two strong, complex women are reduced to cogs in a jarring plot twist that almost flattens them as characters.
In a sense, The Girl in the Road is post-apocalyptic — only in this case, personal apocalypses have taken the place of global ones. In Byrne's world, the future may or may not be redeemable, but it's doubtful humans ever will be. Beauty springs eternal; hope is a no-show. Tomorrow holds little more than the dead echoes of yesterday. That goes double for the sins of the individual. It's a grim message — grimmer than if wholesale Armageddon had actually descended — but it doesn't make The Girl in the Road's dizzying journey less than worthwhile.