Setting the path straight

This is my review of House of Ashes by Monique Roffey.

Inspired by the abortive 1990 political coup in Trinidad, about which I am now embarrassed to have registered so little, the author creates a similar drama in the fictional Caribbean island of Sans Amen. We are introduced first to the simple yet bookish and spiritual Ashes, haunted by the violent death of his freedom fighter brother in an earlier uprising. Under the influence of “The Leader”, charismatic head of a religious cult, Ashes is sucked into a plan to force concessions from the apparently corrupt and neglectful government, by occupying the main parliament building and taking hostages, including the Prime Minister.

The point of view switches between Ashes and Mrs Aspasia Garland, Minister for the Environment, and one of the more sympathetic of the hostages. In a situation which rapidly deteriorates and clearly cannot end well, the author uses her characters to explore their contrasting attitudes, the different experiences which have shaped them including colonisation, their developing perception of events and the way they handle the psychological trauma of a siege.

This reminds me strongly of another highly praised novel about a hostage-taking in a developing country, “Bel Canto”, yet I think “The House of Ashes” is technically superior in being more realistic and focussed on the complex issues of power, inequality and motivation without getting side-tracked into somewhat sentimental romances. On the other hand, what has the makings of an outstanding novel is undermined for me by the author’s tendency to repeat and over-labour points. It would have been much more powerful to have finished at the end of Part V with at most a brief epilogue, that is, omitting the final section, entitled “V1 L’Anse Verte 23 Years Later”. It is as if Monique Roffey is so absorbed in her characters that she cannot resist continuing to supply and analyse details long after the reader should have been left to reflect and reach his or her own conclusions. A minor irritant for me is the overuse of the West Indian term “steupsing”, the tendency to make a noise by sucking in air to express annoyance and derision. Yet perhaps this, and the patois which I enjoyed, give the story greater authenticity, demonstrating Roffey's genuine deep firsthand knowledge of life in Trinidad. Certainly, she creates vivid images of the dusty rundown city, the lush vegetation and Leatherback turtles dragging themselves up onto remote beaches to lay their myriads of eggs – from which most of the hatchlings are doomed to die in the struggle to survive.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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