The Salt Road

Written by Jane Johnson
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

In The Salt Road, Jane Johnson creates twin narratives about women from very different cultures who both take the eponymous Salt Road, the trade route followed for centuries by traders across the desert to the urban markets of Morocco.

The first story concerns Isabelle, who lives an intentionally circumscribed life in London, an accountant who lives in a nice house but whose solitary passion is climbing. When her estranged father dies and wills her a mysterious silver amulet, Isabelle quickly finds herself determined to discover its origins and impulsively books a climbing holiday to Morocco. Once there she soon finds herself on the Salt Road, where she will find the answers to the questions that have defined her life.

Decades earlier, the second narrative traces the journey of Mariata, a young Tuareg woman who is in a fight for her life and her identity. She traces her roots back to Tin Hinan, the queen of the Tuareg, who are the legendary Blue Men of the Sahara. Through her journey in the desert, she meets a young warrior with a tragic history and falls in love, but is further tragedy to strike these young lovers?

The Salt Road is part contemporary and part historic narrative with universal themes of love, identity and betrayal. But it is in the specific and authentic descriptions of the desert and its people that the main strength of this book lies. These descriptive passages, based on the author’s own life’s experience, have an authority that is lacking in the narratives themselves. Mariata’s story, for example, is so much more interesting than Isabelle’s that it unbalances the book. In addition, the ending falls flat in both its contrivance and abruptness.