I have a hard time making up my mind about this novel. It’s sf premise is intriguing: in the future, India seems to have become the dominant country of the world and exploits Africa, especially Ethiopia, for its natural resources. As depicted in the book, India and Africa are both (sub-)continents of extreme post-colonial hybridization, fusing all kinds of languages and cultural traditions to a relatively stable amalgam. Europe and the US don‘t figure much into the world of the novel; in fact, they are only present in form of historical traces, most notably the still widespread use of English.
The protagonists of the book are Meena, a young, paranoid and dangerously unstable woman who, after leaving her transsexual lover under strange circumstances, decides to also leave India by walking the „the Trail“ – a chain of devices that generate energy from the tides, linking India to Africa, three thousand miles long and two meters wide. It is a route that illegal migrants and daring adventurers are rumored to be taking.
The other protagonist is Mariama, a child whose mother is a slave in an unnamed African country. After something happens to her mother, she runs away and finds shelter with two frindly traders travelling across Africa. Soon, the traders pick up another passenger – a beautiful, self-assured woman named Yemaya. Mariama, who knows next to nothing about the world, falls deeply in love with Yemaya, practically deifying her. In fact, her whole narrative in the book is addressed at Yemaya, like an extended prayer to her.
For a long time, the exact relation between these protagonists remain unclear. Their respective stories have strong parallels: Both are on the run after something bad has befallen the most important person in their lives; in both cases, whatever happened is linked to a dangerous snake (even though it becomes clear that, in both cases, it might have been not an actual snake, that the snake is only a metaphor for a crime connected to sexuality); both have only a precarious grasp of reality. At the same time, there are elements of polar opposition. Meena is sexually active, and when she is alone on the trail and no one to have sex with is in sight, she keeps thinking about sex; Mariama is a little girl who only knows about sexuality from witnessing how her mother was raped, and when she starts to sexualize her love to Yemaya, she gives sexuality a totally different meaning and connects it to the holy. Meena comes from a relatively privileged background in India, Mariama is the daughter of a slave. Meena’s psychosis is self-centered – big chunks of her narrative are the imaginary voices of her lover and her family that address themselves to her on her journey along the Trail, reinforcing her as the one and only central character in her story; Mariamas psychosis is centered on someone else, Yemaya, and she keeps addressing herself only to her.
Both characters also seem to encounter distant echoes of the other character. Meena sees a girl on her journey along the trail that might be Mariama; and when Yemaya tells Mariama about how she once walked on a sea serpent, it seems as if Yemaya might be an older version of Meena (however, we soon learn that this cannot be the case). Then, Meena remembers a story of a slave woman she once helped at the hospital she worked at that sounds like the story of Mariamas Mother (however, it can‘t have been her …).
It seems obvious that the novel is about how similar the lives of these two women are, despite all their differences. Most notable is how at the heart of both stories is the violence perpetrated againt their parents: Mariama’s mother has been raped and probably murdered; And Meena’s parents, Indian doctors working in an Ethiopian hospital, have been murdered before Meena had even been born (her being literally cut out of the belly of her dead mother) – supposedly a hate crime connected to political protests in Ethiopia against India at that time. Meena considers it her mission to get to Ethiopia to find the murderer of her parents there. However, it turns out that the story behind their death is a quite different one … about two thirds into the book, the stories of Meena and Miriama finally start to form one picture, and it is certainly a suprising and shocking one.
Still, to me, the novel never quite comes together. There are several reasons for that. One of them is that the parallelisation of the two protagonists felt kind of forced. For a while, I suspected that one of the characters is only imagined by the other (there are a few strong hints in that direction), a solution to the mystery of their connection that would have been more satisfying to me than the actual one we get in the end, simply because that way, the similarities would have made much more sense. Another reason is that, while the two main characters are conceptually interesting, they never felt quite real to me – they come across as ideas, not as real people.
What I simply didn‘t like is how the book turned a story about a political murder into a soap opera thing in the end. It might be daring and gory soap opera, and it also transports several strong messages – foremost, that the idolization of any one person might be, at its core, a truly dangerous, psychotic and even violent and violating kind of behaviour; also, that violent societies will produce violent individuals. But it also seems to negate the existence of violence that is actually politically/ideologically motivated. To me, this seems to say: „If, in the context of political protests against oppression, undue violence is committed, this has nothing to do with the protests – these are only the deeds of confused individuals.“ This seems to dodge the problem that, even when people fight for what one might deem a just cause, politically motivated violence will probably be commited against people who simply do not deserve it. Which actually wouldn‘t bother me so much, if the novel wouldn‘t have implied in the beginning that it sets out to explore just that problem. I simply felt that the author avoided a complex political question and replaced it with a shocking, gory, but in the end, relatively empty moment of relevation.
While all of this sounds rather negative, I would still recommend the book – Meena’s journey along the Trail is fascinating and beautifully narrated, and there is a strong lyrical quality to Mariama’s chapters. It is a good book, no question about it; but I still feel that, especially with regards to the two main characters and the twist of the story, less might have been more in this case.