Striking if Overblown Insight on Life in Trinidad

This is my review of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.

My view of this book see-sawed violently as I read it. Starting with the over-used ploy of the description of a shocking event, in this case the beating of a young boy by corrupt policemen, the novel launches into a study of Englishman George Harwood and his French wife Sabine, who have lived on Trinidad for fifty years. It dissects their rum-fuelled love-hate relationship with each other and the island.

For many pages I read without feeling absorbed, noticing the stilted, banal scenes, characters who did not quite ring true. I was interested to realise that George's interviews for the " Trinidad Guardian" are with real people still living at the time of writing, and wondered if one of them , the famous calypso singer "The Mighty Sparrow" takes exception to being described as the suspected father of a poor, illegitimate Trinidadian boy.

Gradually, I found myself impressed by some of the vivid descriptions, say of the colourful island vegetation, which I found to be very apt when I googled their images. For instance, we see George's favourite month of May described in language which implies his casual promiscuity.

Sabine's habit of talking to the surrounding green hills which she sees as a voluptuous reclining woman seducing George and her appreciation of Trinidad's beauty, contrast with her hatred of the country's corruption and its failure to progress once free from white domination, and the way it makes her feel an outsider.

She hates George too at times for choosing to ignore all this, so that he can exploit the situation, indulge in the free way of life, the scope to grow rich through land purchase, enjoy "the sounds and smells….smiles and shapes", the "bewitching" local women and booze, in a way that would never have been possible in England.

The first part of the book proves to be a novella set in 2006, building up to a dramatic conclusion which I felt for a time should be the end of the whole book. Since the next section moves back in time, to the Harwood's innocent arrival on Trinidad in 1956, I had to force myself to continue because of the numerous hints already provided as to what had happened in the past.

I remain unsure as to whether a structure that moves back in time is a good idea. The reader may gain a sense of "one-upmanship" through knowing more than the characters, but on balance this does not compensate for the loss of suspense.

However, once the narration becomes first person, Sabine's viewpoint from part 2 onwards, it seems to come more alive, grow more moving, and the quality of the writing also improves.

I remain unconvinced by the idea of Sabine loving the unsuccessful leader Eric Williams, the first black leader of an independent Trinidad who promises the people progress, but fails to deliver. I also think the story is not just about the exploitation of Trinidadians first by whites, then by their own leaders. It is also about issues of feminism – the way some women are attracted by powerful men, and allow themselves to be dominated by men, as well as the sense of regret many women have over failing to achieve much in their lives.

The book "goes on too long" and the attempt to create a resounding finale in 1970, after moving back from 2006 to 1956, then forward again, makes for a final chapter with some of the overblown or ludicrous paragraphs which mar an otherwise striking novel.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.