Sunday, July 17, 2011

"The White Woman on the Green Bicycle" by Monique Roffey

Unlike many people I know, I'm not a big fan of the Caribbean, though I've visited several times and have enjoyed myself.  There's something about the sweltering heat and sun that drains me, forcing me into air conditioned rooms rather than the beach.  I could feel this same oppressive heat and its effects throughout The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a novel about an English/French couple and their life in Trinidad over the course of decades.

When Green Bicycle opens, George and Sabine have been living in Trinidad for over fifty years.  They're now an elderly couple with a strained and uncommunicative relationship.  In the first half, which is related from George's point of view, George comes off as a sympathetic character.  He clearly loves Trinidad and his work as a writer of human interest stories for the local paper.  He's ambivalent about Sabine, who spends her days lounging in the house and with whom he appears to have no intimacy. 

The pace in this first half is somewhat slow; the reader is not completely sure why George and Sabine are so hostile and unable to find common ground.  Sabine appears sluggish and lazy, spending the day in an alcohol and drug haze.  However, George's discovery of decades of letters Sabine wrote (but never sent) to Trinidad's first Prime Minister, Eric Williams, adds mystery.

The novel is not written in chronological order, so where the book really got going for me was when it jumped to the past, when George and Sabine arrive in Trinidad in the '50s.  They arrive at a tumultuous time in the country's history as Trinidad becomes independent from England and relationships between black citizens and "colonial" whites are rapidly deteriorating.

This and later sections are told from Sabine's point of view, who understandably becomes a much more sympathetic character.  She agrees to come to Trinidad only because of George, and while George falls in love with the island, Sabine never does.  She's far from her home, in a land where her only friends are the other expats who congregate nervously at the country club.  Her body deteriorates under the heat, and while George has his work to keep him occupied, Sabine (like women of the time) is expected to just exist.  She finds friendship with her maids, Venus, Lucy, and later Jennifer, and over the years she gives birth to Sebastian and Pascale, but she never seems happy or content.  George loves Sabine, but he's not willing to sacrifice his love of Trinidad for her.

Throughout the novel, the island itself is a strong character, even literally (both George and Sabine "converse" with the green hill overlooking their home).  The heat and fecundity of the island is ever-present, and Trinidadian history runs throughout George and Sabine's lives as they witness the country's move into independence.

For me, the most interesting parts were the early (chronologically) sections as Sabine tries to navigate an island in revolt.  She's not wanted by the citizens and she doesn't want to be there herself, but still she finds herself drawn into the country's politics.  I knew nothing about Trinidadian history, and Green Bicycle was an interesting way to learn.

If you can stick through a slow start, Green Bicycle delivers as an unique view into a Caribbean nation, though there are many questions left unanswered, and black voices (independent of Sabine's interpretation) are largely absent.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

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