Aug 25, 2007

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson is the story of Mer, a plantation slave on the island of Saint-Domingue, and a healer who helps her fellow slaves. It is also the story of Jeanne Duval, a mulatto dancer living in mid-nineteenth century Paris, and the mistress of the poet Charles Baudelaire. And it is the story of Thais, a dark-skinned prostitute from Alexandria who one day decides to visit the city of Jerusalem. Uniting these three women across space and time is Ezili, a Power, a being born of the hope of those who are near despair, of the longing for release of those who are restrained.

In the first storyline, Nalo Hopkinson uses both history and Haitian lore to bring this tale to life. One of the characters is Fran├žois Mackandal, one of the leaders whose influence contributed to turning Saint-Domingue into The Republic of Haiti, the very first free black republic. In the novel, Mackandal is a shape-shifter, and part djinn. This story’s focus is the lives of the slaves – not only their work, but mostly what they do in the few hours of the day they had for themselves, the bonds that unite them, their struggles, their too often forgotten humanity.

In the second storyline, we are given a glimpse of Paris around 1842. Racism was, of course, a very common thing, and even Jeanne Duval wishes her skin were lighter. Other than Baudelaire, there is also an appearance by Jules Verne, whose books were highly influenced by Baudelaire's translations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Finally, in the third storyline, the ancient world and its mix of cultures, faiths and habits is brilliant brought to life, and we get to visit Alexandria and Jerusalem in a tale that is a retelling of the Christian story of Saint Mary of Egypt.

What these three stories have in common, other than the presence of Ezili, is the fact that, regardless of historical specificities, all of them are about people struggling to find their places; about people's fears, their pains, their doubts.

Novels with several storylines are often risky, because there is always the possibility of the reader becoming so entranced by one of them that the others will seem to drag. With this novel in particular, though, I was entranced by all three stories; I wanted more of all of them. Nalo Hopkinson’s writing is alive, vibrant, and sensual, and everything about this book completely sucked me in.

If I really had to pick a favourite, though, I would probably go with the story set on the Island of Saint-Domingue. The novel doesn’t actually show us the Haitian revolution, but one can sense how the slaves are picking up what is left of their strength, of their faith, of their different cultures, and preparing to build new free lives for themselves.

My edition of the book has a fascinating interview with Nalo Hopkinson at the end, and in it she says:
Even the way that diasporic African cultures reinvented and reformed themselves on the other side of the Atlantic slave routes is an instance of broken patterns rewoven into new patterns. It’s the basic thesis of my novel: the holocaust of slavery did not kill us or our cultures. We reassembled the bits, changed, but into new wholes. It’s one of the wonders of human beings as a race; we can do things like that. We are very flexible.
The Salt Roads is a novel that will appeal to fans of folklore and fantasy, to fans of historical novels, to fans of fiction at its very best. I urge you all to read this book.


  1. It sounds like a strange mix of cultures and times, but the folklore aspect is interesting. I think I will look up some more reviews on it and possibly recommend it to my best friend who it might suit better. It's her birthday next month so it could be a great gift for her (and she might lend it to me after she has read it so everyone is a winner!).

  2. This sounds like such a cool book. Not to be too overly cliche, but voodoo is a big thing down here in New Orleans and seeing as it is, I've read a lot on the folklore, culture and the religious roots that it comes from. It's fascinating stuff! I'll have to check this one out!

  3. Rhinoa, I think you'd like this one. There were certain aspects of the book that actually reminded me of Anne Rice at her best - the sensuality, the perfect evocation of the ancient world, the subtle blending of ordinary life with the supernatural, etc.

    Chris: it's an awesome book, and I think it's right up your alley. I think that mix of cultures is one of the most fascinating things about New Orleans. I really enjoy reading about it and about where it came from.

  4. Oh, this sounds so good. I'm trying not to add to TBR Mountain, but this at least has to go on my wishlist. Nice review!

  5. This sounds awesome!!! It's kind of reminiscent of War of the Saints. :) It's now close to the top of my TBR list.

  6. Sounds intriguing--and the cover art is very interesting. :) I love folklore, but I am not too familiar with this particular region. Thanks for the great review (as always).

  7. Dewey: I hope you do get around to reading it sometime!

    Eva: I hadn't thought of it, but it actually does sound similar.

    Trish: Thanks you :) I don't know too much about the folklore or history of Haiti, but what I do know completely fascinates me.


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