Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads is a multiplot fantasy-cum-historical novel, featuring Ezili, a Haitian goddess; Jeanne Duval, the mistress of Charles Baudelaire; Mer, a slave on Saint Domingue (later Haiti); and Thais/Meritet, the "real" Saint Mary of Egypt. Unlike the parallel-plot novels I've discussed here before, the characters in this novel do not go through uncanny repetitions of their precursors' lives, although the three mortal women echo each other in names (Mer/Jeanne Lemer/Meritet), social status (slavery, prostitution), experiences (Mer's mystical "stroke," Jeanne's more prosaic one), and sexual transgressiveness (lesbianism or bisexuality, enthusiastic prostitution, various forms of gender-bending play). Through the mind-hopping Ezili, who "swims" through time and space, the novel's multiple strands exist simultaneously, suggesting that all three characters are, in some sense, plural aspects of a single woman. As Ezili says, "[n]ot for me the progression in a straight line from earliest to latest. Time eddies. I am now then, now there, sometimes simultaneously" (42). It's not surprising, then, that the final woman to appear is Thais, even though she is, chronologically, the first.
Some reviewers found the novel incoherent; Jayme Lynn Blaschke notes, for example, that "[t]here's little balance among the main narrative threads." Gregory E. Rutledge (PDF) though, is onto something when it comes to genre: "It is, depending on one's critical preference, an historical novel, neo-slave narrative, or allegory of a slave narrative situated within the space probed by some of the very best Black women's authors." The three women's plots each rewrite a different kind of narrative. Mer's plot, as Rutledge suggests, is a neo-slave narrative, one in which the slaves can speak with their gods and transform themselves into animals. While this plot is defined by Mer's failure to avert history, it more generally reinvents historical agency: the famous rebel leader Makandal, for example, isn't manipulating Vodou "superstition," because Vodou actually works. By contrast, Thais' story unwrites Christian hagiography. Empiricism fails to explain the Haitian rebellion; Christianity fails to explain or contain Meritet, who pointedly wanders "off-message" at the end of her narrative (and, for that matter, of the novel). Sandwiched in the middle, in realist mode, Jeanne Duval returns from the margins of Charles Baudelaire's life--the minor character made major. (This plot may also be a nod in the direction of Angela Carter's story about Jeanne, "Black Venus.")
Unlike Mer's story, which does not conclude at all, and Meritet's, whose story fails to conclude "properly," Jeanne's ends with her death. In a way, that's only logical, since Jeanne is the one truly historical character here. Mer is a fiction of the female slave who has no recorded voice. Meritet is a fiction who acts as the historical underbelly of a sanctified fiction; the novel's Meritet, paradoxically, becomes a fiction putatively more true than the hagiographical truth. And Jeanne is a fiction who, like Mer, gives voice to someone known primarily through someone else's voice, and who, like Meritet, is also the "reality" behind a series of poems, photographs, and fragmentary accounts. Even when the novel most obviously looks like conventional historical fiction--its interpolation of documents and letters included--it thus reminds us that the history involved is itself imaginative play.