Tuesday, February 01, 2011

THE SALT ROAD by Jane Johnson (2011) Doubleday Canada

Isabelle Treslove-Fawcett, a successful investment banker living a comfortable life in London, is given an enigmatic gift from her cryptic estranged father following his sudden death. There is a box with her name on it in the attic of his home and inside is an exquisitely carved amulet, something in her father's letter that he refers to as a waymarker for her life. In his long overdue apology from the grave, Isabelle's father confesses, "I know I have been a great disappointment to you, as a father and as a man. I do not ask for forgiveness or even understanding." The legendary archeologist abandoned Isabelle and her mother when Izzy was only 14 and from that time forward her mother openly blamed her only daughter for ruining their great love affair.

Determined to discover for herself the history of the amulet, Isabelle travels with her best friend Eve to Morocco to try to find out more about the charm as well as dig up clues to her archeologist parents' past. There, on a risky rock climbing adventure, Isabelle has a fall, damages her ankle and finds herself depending on the kindness of a stranger, Taib, a knowledgeable and handsome antiques trader who introduces Izzy to the heady culture of the resilient Tuareg people. Through Taib, Izzy learns that eventually you can go home again.

Izzy's narrative is interwoven with the story of Mariata, an independent Tuareg woman descended from the legendary Tin Hinan in the not-so-distant past who traveled across the desert alone after she believes her husband has been savagely murdered. Through the kindness of an intersexed blacksmith, Tana, Mariata feels strengthened to continue her dangerous journey in the company of her unborn child and an obstinate camel. Time after time Mariata faces obstacles both natural and human and each time she prevails, even when it means she must embrace a life of solitude to survive.

In a tender scene where Izzy finds herself preparing for burial the body of an elderly Tuareg woman, I was momentarily irked by the serenity of the woman's passing because, "her expression was beatific, her eyes closed, her mouth curved up in a smile." In the deaths I have witnessed of people I've loved, no mouth has ever curved up in a smile. All mouths have been left agape at odd angles after the final breath escapes. So, while I was more than prepared to suspend my disbelief about nomadic desert life, this one romantic description of an extraordinary death, became a chink in the believability.

Nevertheless, Johnson is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the landscape and the rigors of a nomadic lifestyle and I found myself envious of Mariata's unwavering connection to all that binds her to both. And, as Izzy moves closer to the emotional truth about her own sense of belonging, abandoning her previous allegiance to materialism at the feet of fine furniture and designer labels, I cheered for her every inch of the way.

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