Set in a much different future than you might expect, Monica Byrne’s debut novel The Girl In The Road ditches the conventions of the genre for an altogether more inventive approach, set in a world where the balance of power has shifted to the East and new technology is being developed on a much more personal level.
Meena wakes with a mysterious snakebite, prompting her to escape from India to Ethiopia, where she was born and her parents murdered, both for her safety and in an attempt to find her parents’ killer. A vast high-tech trail now extends across the Arabian sea, constructed to harness the power of the waves. While possible (with a lot of difficulty) to travel across the trail, this is forbidden and none that have tried have ever returned yet Meena decides to brave the trail to get to her destination. Meena’s journey is also mirrored by another young girl, Mariama travelling across the Sahara to Africa, both stories entwined to an inevitable conclusion.
What follows is a difficult, often harrowing journey filled with paranoia, confusion and longing, fuelled by dogged determination and acute sadness. As the narrative drifts between both women in different timelines, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track, but certain events at key moments in the plot help to snap the reader back into place without losing interest. Byrne draws on her not-inconsiderable scientific background sparsely and effectively to create a realistic and believable future without frills or gaudy technological fancy. The technology of this future is practical, affordable and usable. Adoption of cloud technology and advances in medicine have reshaped society. Pregnancy is prevented from birth, with an opt-in later in life and sexually transmitted disease is practically non-existent which has led to a much more liberal attitudes, although this also leads to more problems within traditional relationships.
It’s not only Byrne’s knowledge of science that is impressive however. Her knowledge and portrayal of Indian and African society and traditions as well as caste systems and its treatment of women and children help to educate the Western reader, and lends a distinct air of authenticity to the work.
The Girl In The Road is a refreshingly uncompromising tale of sadness, loss and rediscovery and while the sci-fi credentials are certainly present, it is much more than that. As beautiful as it is brutal, its unflinching attitude makes it one of the more enjoyable debuts I’ve come across in some time. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. If more traditional science fiction is your bag, I suggest you stick with it. However if you are prepared to take a more open-minded approach to a genre already awash with tropes and clichés and try something outside your comfort zone then this a book you should most definitely consider.