A romantic novel of belonging and identity, The Salt Road by Jane Johnson immerses the reader in the world of a marginalised culture, the Sahara of the Tuaregs* (Kel Tamasheq/Kel Tagelmust). While the ingredients are those of a kitchen-sink melodrama, Johnson’s anthropologically detailed depictions of tribal life carry such esoteric allure that her fiction often – and beautifully – transcends predictability. Featuring an emotional mystery and a phenomenal Targuia protagonist whose journey along the proverbial and literal Salt Road of life and death is the strong heart of the story, Johnson’s novel offers exceptional thrills for armchair travellers.
A silver amulet inscribed with cryptic signs inspires a set of events that leads Isabelle Treslove-Facett on a climbing trip to Morocco. The accident that disrupts her plans plunges her into the midst of people and places that force her to examine why she has always felt an outsider, and what happened to change her from a free-spirited child to an adult constricted by fears.
In the Sahara, Mariata ult Yemma ult Tofenat of the Kel Taitok (Taituq/Taïtoq) is fiercely proud of her descent from Tin Hinan, the queen the Tuaregs revere as “The Mother Of Us All”. But the changes that sweep the Sahara are beginning to encroach on a nomadic lifestyle previously taken for granted, and when the freedoms traditionally guaranteed her as a Targuia become threatened, she embarks on a journey that will lead to passionate love and and violent tragedy.
Separated by time and distance, only when the right connection is made can either woman find the answers they seek.
The Salt Road epitomises the concept of place as character. A naturalised resident of Morocco, author Jane Johnson incorporates her observations of landscape and culture with a command of prose and technical skill that builds a dynamic, fully-realised world as opposed to a prettily described travelogue (a trait of the previous Sahara-set novel I posted about, Footprints In The Sand). The story grows organically out of the setting, a meshing that makes The Salt Road a heady experience for the fiction reader who relishes locales so vividly rendered they give documentaries a run for the money. The wealth of places that play a direct or indirect role does cry out for a map which unfortunately is not provided in my edition (Doubleday Canada hardcover, 2011); they include numerous locations in Morocco, Alger, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. For example, by studying an ethnographic map of the Tuareg heartland as well as its distance to Morocco the true enormity of Mariata’s treks becomes much clearer. (While the shadowed areas on the map on the left indicate Tuareg areas in Mali and Niger, all names on the map starting with "Kel" denote Tuareg confederations.)
The plot opens with a multi-part mystery and evolves through dual storylines that are fitted together with great intricacy. The novel is structured in a way that presumably is intended to keep the reader in suspense about the connection between the amulet and the two principal protagonists until the end. A tinge of mysticism suggests possibilities related to time-slips or reincarnation. However, too much is telegraphed in the opening chapers, and when in addition close reading reveals clues that place Mariata in a specific time period, the veil of intrigue surrounding the plot is removed before the story has reached the halfway mark. It is therefore a credit to Johnson’s storytelling abilities that while the dénouement may be short in surprises she makes the journey there enthralling enough to be a satisfying end in itself. Moreover, anti-climactic or not, it is a neat - if a little breathless – conclusion that sweetly fulfills the story promise. (Unless, in concert with some of the reviews I scanned before acquiring my copy, you have been led by Johnson’s literate prose into believing that you are reading unsentimental literary fiction, in which case certain fairy-tale elements may drive you to feel the ending is tragic for all the wrong reasons.)
The novel’s set-up can be separated into three parts: Isabelle’s storyline, which is narrated in first person and after an intriguing start begins to read like generic women’s fiction; Mariata’s storyline – told in third person-point of view – which, were it to be detached, could easily function as a solid, multi-faceted novel in itself; and the mystery which forms a frame and joins the two halves together. Unfortunately, the contrast in interest and power between the storylines produces an effect similar to fitting a quality frame around a glowing original oil, then sticking in an inkjet print to complement the whole. On its own, there is nothing awfully wrong with Isabelle’s story. Yet compared to the vitality of the indomitable Mariata, Isabelle appears pouty and vapid, and the banality of her growth arc flattens a plotline that relies on coincidence and improbability to keep up with the excitement of the discovery-factor inherent in Mariata’s adventure-filled tribal life.
It seems the lot of Isabelle to be chastised throughout the story. Raised by parents who caused her to feel like an intruder and crushed her spirit, it is in the act of pursuing the one activity where she feels in control of her fears that she is dumped – painfully - into the lap of an alien culture she does not understand and that judges her for her Westernness every step of the way. (Cultural prejudice is a motif in this book full of confrontational characters, and not limited to any one group). With her horribly dysfunctional childhood (there is even more darkness to it than it as first apparent) and her initially unwilling pilgrimage of the soul, she should be as fascinating as Mariata. Her sense of self is deeply buried within a past she exerts all her power to forget, refusing to face how trapped it holds her until an accident makes her restless body, too, a prison. The gradual loss of various freedoms that forces her to re-examine her identity is an intriguingly conceived plotline. I only wish the rest of her character development had been as convincing. However, since her problems are largely blamed on Western selfishness there is no reason for her character to work on toxic personality traits. Instead, it is her awakening to the virtues of another culture that achieves her transformation. Now, my scepticism is certainly not directed against the idea that experiencing other cultures can have a transformative influence on a person. But Isabelle, a successful corporate tax accountant, turns out to be a frustratingly dim traveller whose personal insecurities leave her flailing and spineless in the face of adversity. There is a blatant stageyness to the way in which she is made to see the error of her ways (such as having chosen a job which involves finding tax loopholes for rich corporations that prey on the poor). Thus, when this wealthy woman gives away her luxury watch to a nomadic child to use as a plaything in a “poignant” scene that marks how she has progressed and started to re-evaluate what truly matters, this reader’s response was rather uncharitable.
Overall, the political elements in the parts of the book dealing with Isabelle have a one-dimensionality that put me in mind of the zeal of the newly converted. This being a novel, its handling is perhaps more a problem of technique than of political or social subtext, although well-motivated reasoning tends to carry more weight than random claims. (The narrative's position on slavery in Tuareg society, for example, is very defensive and dismisses any debate.) The elegiac passion for the Berber and Tuareg cause that infuses the book eventually, in the plot involving Isabelle, ramps up from an appeal to respect and preserve a civilisation in trouble to a finale so crammed with clumsy information dumping that plot temporarily disappears into a political manifesto.
By contrast, Mariata’s storyline virtually bursts with colour and joy of storytelling. Full of exhilarating twists and turns, of passion and strength and drama, it exudes everything that is fun, touching, and satisfying about the best commercial fiction. With outward stoicism and internal fire, Mariata never gives up. She finds inspiration in her noble ancestor, and fights tooth and nail for her dreams and those she loves. No humiliation or injustice she experiences ever induces her to feel inferior or unworthy. In every way that matters to her she is a free woman, the opposite of Isabelle who feels trapped every way except financially. Remarkably, Mariata’s independence is no mere fictional invention by an author caught up in romantic fantasies about Tuaregs. More about this further down.
The fluency with which Johnson weaves complex social, political, and cultural strands together in The Salt Road is one of the novel's most notable achievements. To get an idea of what this entails it is worth taking a moment to condider the socio-political context for the story. The following is my beginner’s attempt to summarise points that have bearing on Johnson’s narrative. Please note, however, that the interpretation is my own, not an account of views or opinions expressed in the novel.
Particularly in the last half century Berber (pl. Imazaghen, sing. Amazigh) identity in western North Africa (Tamazgha/Maghreb) has been suppressed by a cultural and political system of domination referred to as Arabisation. The problem is not with Islam, which has been adopted by many Berbers, including Tuaregs (there are Jewish and Christian Berbers, too). Historically, Arabs are relative newcomers (late 7th century) to an area inhabited by ethnically-varied, non-Semitic indigenous peoples collectively known as Berbers. Berber assimilation of a long line of foreign conquerors (Romans, Vandals, Christian Eastern Romans (i.e. Byzantines), Arab Bedouins, French, and Spanish) ultimately led to a situation where the Berber language (dialects grouped together as Tamasheq/Tamazight) and customs became treated as if their practitioners were a minority. For example, it was only in 2003 that Morocco officially approved the teaching of Tamazight in schools. The written form of the language, Tifinagh, has been a contested issue as some Moroccan groups have pushed for Tamazight to be taught using the Arabic or Latin alphabet instead. Arabic is still the only official language of the country in spite of estimations that Tamazight is in fact spoken by around half the population.
Among the most marginalised are the Tuaregs, that is, Berbers who nomadised the Sahara. Once powerful trans-Saharan traders of luxury goods and slaves, travelling caravan routes (such as the Salt Road) from north-western Africa to cosmopolitan towns along the Mediterranean, they are now among the poorest groups in North Africa. Romanticised in the West as the noble and mystical Blue People, caught up in conflicts with Saharan governments in a deadly morass of mutual accusations of racism, violent persecution, and barbarism, one of few things that seem to be agreed upon by outsiders is that Tuareg numbers have dwindled (estimates range from about one to three million). Desertification, including severe droughts in the twentieth century, as well as the imposition of border controls that disrupt nomadism, have done their part in causing migration to urban areas. Even so, some observers detect small signs of revival, noting that it is an ancient and hardy culture capable of intelligent adjustment.
These tensions colour the narrative in The Salt Road and contribute to its rich, authentic feel, particularly in Mariata’s storyline. For example, Tuareg customs and the nobility of her maternal heritage support Mariata’s independence. It is a partially matrilinear society in which status is inherited through the maternal line and women have no obligation to wear veils (links to an interesting but dated article, so read with caution) but modesty and respect require men to cover their faces. Women own and dispose over their own property, and retain custody of their children after divorce, which they can initiate. Johnson shows them doing this and more, including choosing their own husbands, for example, and that before marriage, if done discreetly, it is acceptable for girls to have lovers. It is modern society, including the pressure of institutionalised religion, that threatens to take these rights and privileges away from Mariata by diminishing the status of women in Tuareg society.
Mariata’s poetry illustrates the prominence of women in Tuareg oral traditions and music (the Imzad, a single-stringed violin, is reserved for female musicians). Incidentally, I was amused to discover, in Art Of Being Tuareg (see books of related interest, below), which contains a chapter each on poetry and music, to find a poem in which a woman by the same name is mentioned: “Manta and Halban of the long braids/and Mariata, beloved by the young/is frugal with herself, with that which pleases”. The description fits.
Meanwhile, Taïb represents the sedentary Berber. Surprisingly, although he is a principal character and Isabelle’s eventual love interest, we learn less about his background than about many secondary and minor characters. An international businessman, he carries on the traditions of his Tuareg forebears, but as an urban dweller his knowledge of his nomadic heritage is vague and theoretical, not practical. Unlike the Tuareg characters, he and several other citified Berbers are known to the reader only by their first names, not their lineage (ag (son of) [father], ult (daughter of) [mother]) or family name. It may be intended to symbolise how cut off or alienated they are from their heritage, but in Taïb’s case it also accentuates the slenderness of his characterisation.
As Isabelle’s de facto guide, Taïb lacks flavour and individuality. In fact, I would argue that the way he is used, or rather unused, makes his presence in the story superfluous. If one were to replace him with one or more stock characters of either sex who air the same generic sentiments and let them drift, like he does, in and out around the periphery of the plotline, the trajectory of Isabelle’s development and the outcome of the mystery would remain substantially unaffected. Whatever your genre of fiction, literary or popular, if you have a mission to inform or educate readers, you either need, at a minimum, to carefully explore events that illustrate the point you are trying to make, or create characters whose personal struggles embody the issue. Mariata is a case in point of successful application of this principle; Taïb, the pallid opposite. An intermediary who facilitates Isabelle’s interactions with more creatively imagined characters who unlike him actually hold clues and answers and do things that drive the plot forward, he seems there primarily to allow a pretty bow to be tied around the resolution of Isabelle’s storyline.
Even there, however, as the couple of a “love builds bridges where there are none”-romance - if the perfunctory development of a romantic subplot so nebulous can be called that - the two fail to convince. Worse, the flimsiness weakens the persuasiveness of Isabelle’s storyline. Putting Isabelle really on her own in Morocco could have forced something more interesting out of her, or, alternatively, giving her an active, insightful partner or other intelligent foil could have resulted in real conflict that demonstrates issues of colonisation, exploitation, and marginalisation. But instead of a romance that deepens characterisation and interaction that forces debate we are stuck with two people who rather than communicate spout preachy slogans or combative opinions in snapshot fashion. It was difficult for me to grasp what exactly Taïb admires or respects in a woman who protests, complains, distrusts, and shies away from everything that is new or unexpected to her – and as an ignorant, impatient first-time tourist in Morocco, possessed of a petulant nature, who puts herself at the mercies of local strangers, that pretty much encompasses every moment of every day. It was equally unclear to me why Isabelle falls for this particular man, not merely for his culture.
Then again, none of the male characterisations in The Salt Road reach anywhere near the substance or complexity of Johnson’s female creations, even the secondary ones. This story belongs to its women, young and old. (Belief in spirits has a prominent place in the culture the story explores, and that is what the male characters often resembled: wraith-like creatures in a world of wonderfully real, strong-willed women.) Even so, The Salt Road is deeply romantic in its approach to the place of love in a person’s life and its healing effect. Rather than taking the customary approach of condensing romance/love to specific courtship/family scenes, the author often makes its effect come vibrantly (and touchingly) through in character attitudes to the tribulations that buffet their lives and the strength they find in hope.
Jane Johnson is a happy author discovery for me. With The Salt Road she has crafted literate entertainment that excites the senses even as it informs. In other words, pure wish fulfillment for armchair travellers. Still, whereas the fascinating descriptions of Tuareg life, the careful unfolding of intense private dramas, and the poignant puzzle all crackle with storytelling vigour, if you are of the opinion that details bog down a story and you primarily require a snappy tempo and flashy mystery, then this may not be the book for you. The thoughtful but interest-filled pace echoes the musings of an elderly character in the novel: “all stories have their own way of being told and can never be hurried” (page 288). The Salt Road heeds the advice, and I am glad that it does.
*Tuareg (sing. Targuia (f), Targui (m)) is the most widely used term for groups of people who call themselves Kel Tamasheq (The Free People), Kel Tagelmust (People Of The Veil), or Imazaghen (Berber). While the origins of ‘Tuareg’ may be pejorative, Jane Johnson uses the term as a modern shorthand.
A lengthy excerpt from The Salt Road (chapter five) can be read at Johnson’s website. It introduces the reader to Mariata and is an excellent representation of the author’s style.
Non-fiction of related interest: The inclusion of works in French in the appended reading list in The Salt Road reflects the relative scarcity of quality printed sources and Internet articles in English, a difficulty I encountered when researching links for this post. The blog Tuareg Culture And News comments on the proliferation of popular myths in the media and recommends The Pastoral Tuareg: Ecology, Culture, and Society (Carlsberg Nomad Series) by Johannes Nicolaisen and Ida Nicolaisen as “the most authoritative, comprehensive ethnography on Tuareg culture in English” despite the fact that its original publication dates back to 1963 (latest printing by Thames and Hudson, 1997). Since that post, however, Tuareg Society Within A Globilized World: Saharan Life In Transition (Tauris, 2010) edited by Anja Fischer (German site, but lots of photos) and Ines Kohl has been released. The publishers claim “this book is the first comprehensive study of the Tuareg today”. The apparent companion book to a noted exhibition, Art Of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads In A Modern World, receives at least one mixed review: “the title is not only ethnocentric, it is misleading: The book is not really about today's nomadic Tuareg in the Sahara. It is rather a book about sedentary silversmiths, their families, and their crafts in a place called Agadez, Republic of Niger”. The reviewer goes on to points out that “In their foreword, Thomas K. Seligman (interview), director of the Cantor Arts Center, and Marla C. Berns, director of the UCLA Fowler Museum, thank Hermès, the famed French couture house, for its support. Hermès, as a global player, is commissioning silver pieces from silversmiths in Agadez for the Paris-based fashion house. This is a positive development, as it provides skilled craftsmen with a secure income. In practice, however, the silversmiths are dependent on some French intermediaries who do the designs and who have established ties with Hermès. Another problematic story concerns the printing of images of classic Berber jewelry and Tuareg leather bags on Hermès silk scarves. Are they "Tuareg-inspired designs," (p. 265) or are they copies of Tuareg designs, taken, and reproduced for Hermès' commercial benefit? Does Hermès pay any copyright fees to the Tuareg community?” I have quoted this part of the review in full because there are tangents to characters and developments in The Salt Road. An important secondary character is a smith (enad), and this person's arts and craftmanship play an interesting role in the novel. But the novel’s last chapter also makes positive mention of another character’s “thriving trade in commissioned artefacts for the American and European collectors’ market”, and there is no commentary that would address the concerns raised by the reviewer of Art Of Being Tuareg. Finally, a comprehensive, non-analytical summary and brief review note of The Tuaregs: The Blue People by Karl-G. Prasse concludes that this book serves as a useful general introduction; it is also one of the sources listed by Johnson.