The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Penguin Books, New York, 2011
From my TBR pile. This book was short-listed for the 2010 Orange Prize. I read it for Orange July, an event organized by The Magic Lasso.
George Harwood and his French bride Sabine arrive on Trinidad in 1956. George hopes to succeed at his job and falls in love with the island, Sabine hates the heat and hopes to return to England. The novel covers their initial passion, the birth of their children, Sebastian and Pascale, and their growing disconnection during 50 years of their marriage.
Out on the Gulf of Paria, a cruise ship was under sail, exiting the harbour, a huge white swan paddling off. He cringed. Truth was he preferred Trinidad – always had. He preferred these wild emerald hills, the brash forest, the riotous and unpredictable landscape of Trinidad to the prim lazy pastures of his own country, England. He wanted this bold land. Not the mute grey drizzle of Harrow on the Hill. He liked the extroverted people, not the prudish and obedient couples his parents mixed with. He felt alive here; unlike Sabine. But now he should say something, do something, finally. Please his wife, for once. Go and see Bobby Camacho on his way home, take him on. Show Bobby the photos of Talbot’s face; let him know the story would appear in the morning’s papers. He should go and give the bastard a fight. From page 51.
I wanted to love this book but by the middle of it I was struggling. It may be the structure, the fact that it starts in present day and jumps back to 1956, then moves forward in time to end in 1970. Parts of this worked but at times it felt slap-dashed, like the novel wasn’t sure of itself. Maybe that sense of disorder was intentional, show the disorder of the times on an island that struggled after independence from the crown. Or it could be that I was tired of Sabine. The longer she stays on the island the nastier she gets, and she whines. Maybe it’s all the rum and the valium. George is not exactly likable either.
Roffey’s language is lush and rich, painting the island and its surrounding with color, scent and sound. She gives the island a voice strong enough that her characters know its power. She brings the issues of class and race to her pages in ways that are clear and honest.
One afternoon, I cycled round the savannah, marveling at the trees. The yellow pouis were just coming into bloom, the dry season arriving. On my bike in shorts and plimsolls, with the sun beating down, I soon found myself down in Fredrick Street and then weaving into Charlotte Street, before cycling abreast of the open-air market.
There were people everywhere, hawking their wares on the streets: sugar cane and green bananas, fish and mountains of yams and sweet potatoes. The market resembled a mass of bees swarming, the air thick with the smell of forest honey and coconut oil and human sweat. The sun shone and polished the black bodies. At last – I’d been so cut off in that tiny flat. I knew I was missing out, missing this: the thrum of the population, out here, in the street. I sailed by, a white ghost in their midst. My heart beat hard in my chest; many of the traders looked up and stared, silent and curious. Instinctively, I knew it would be wrong to stop, let alone roam the market without a guide. My face flushed with the embarrassment of not knowing the rules. I smiled and broke into perspiration. From page 219.
Roffey portrays the political and social struggles of the people of Trinidad from their independence in 1962 through the birth and growth of the People’s National Movement. She introduces real people and has Sabine write letters to Eric Williams, one of the founders of the PNM. This novel is a depiction of the modern history of Trinidad viewed through the eyes of a white woman who would rather not be there. In the end the story didn’t hold together for me. What I would like is to read fiction about Trinidad and Tabago written by an author of color. If you have thoughts on this or know of any book titles please leave a comment.