Thursday, July 12, 2012

The White Woman on a Green Bicycle--Review

I've a confession to make: like Sabine, the heroine of "The White Woman on a Green Bicycle", I wasn't exactly sure where Trinidad was located; I certainly didn't know that it was just off the coast of Venezuela, where I thought (though not originally as my first stop in South America was originally Colombia) I would end up after reading "Omeros". Several of my friends on Goodreads had really enjoyed Monique Roffey's book: it had been nominated for the Orange Prize, and it was available as an audio book. In addition, I felt that my tour of the Caribbean was still lacking in contemporary fiction, and I had found Derek Walcott's portrait of the British couple growing old far from home to be a poignant part of "Omeros". Adjoa Andoh's narration of the book was said to be a real plus, and since I knew, after thorough research, that I wouldn't have much luck with finding of of my South American selections on audio, I went to Audible and downloaded the novel. (Interestingly enough, no copy was available in any form through my library, which I found quite surprising.)

Monique Roffey plays a bit of a trick on the reader with "White Woman on a Green Bicycle". The book opens with a young man being beaten up by a group of policeman; who the beaten victim is we have no idea. later, the reader learns he is the son of the maid of George and Sabine Harwood, expatriate Europeans who have spent almost a half a century on the island. George is a hearty, self-satisfied drunk who, despite his second-rate qualities, has grown well-to-do during his time in Trinidad; his wife is an embittered harridan who seems to enjoy picking fights with her family, particularly her husband, whom she can barely tolerate, and her creolized daughter and Trinidadian son-in-law. Her laments about the heat, the insects, and the unbearableness of it all seem both fresh and a worn-out whine; it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for her, and George seemed just a dull bore. Events occur, and the story ends, so to speak, in the middle of the book; and the fallout from Sabine's actions are never revealed by Roffey.

Instead, the author spins back the clock to the beginning of the couple's time in Trinidad,  where they arrived shortly after their marriage, and allows Sabine to tell the story of their lives by switching to first person narrative. Everything is startling an exotic; even grocery shopping is an unsettling adventure. The Harwoods arrive right before Britain is slated to release control over the colony, but in theory this shouldn't be much of a concern to the young couple, as George's contract is for only three years. Or so George promises his wife. They are young and in love; to pass her days Sabine zips around Port of Spain on her prized green bicycle, and unwittingly gains a fair amount of notoriety among the Trinidadians. Of course, George and Sabine end up staying and staying, through the births of their children, and through the tumultuous times on the island, when the island grows wealthy from oil deposits, but a continuing cycle of corrupt leadership disappoints many of the Trinidadians. Sabine never really feels at ease in her surroundings, and as an outlet she pens a series of letters (which she never mails) to the first Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams, with whom she has had the most tenuous of relationships.

There were many things I enjoyed about this novel. Roffey's description of the landscape is lush and vivid; the island really does become a character in the novel. (Quite literally, in fact, as the mountain looming over the Harwood's  semi-rural retreat occasionally converses with Sabine, a bit of magic-realism that I didn't think the author handled very adeptly.) And as a person who has spent many years overseas, I could appreciate how Roffey could show that a person living in a new land can be both attracted and repelled, stimulated and overwhelmed, by his or her surroundings. And it was sad to see how the relationship of George and Sabine, which started out so promisingly, started growing more and more distant. Nevertheless, the novel didn't quite work for me.

The quasi-fantasy relationship Sabine had with Eric Williams I felt strained credulity at best; it seemed to work more as a source of info-dumping than anything else. And there was a scene towards the end of the novel, which explained why George and Sabine ended up staying on Trinidad, that seemed both heavy handed and very manipulative. Those weren't the things that really bothered me. The slowly souring marriage of George and Sabine just went on and on and on; the grim portrait of a decaying relationship might have been well done, but it wasn't exactly enlightening, and it grew very tedious indeed.

There was another problem I had with the book, which seemed to echo Adjoa's narration of the novel. She was excellent with the Trinidadian voices, but everyone else was portrayed very stereotypically; Sabine's best friend, from Eastern Europe, spoke with a vampy Boris-and Natasha voice; the Americans all sounded flat and  whiny. Of course, this could only be a coincidence, but I think the narrator's unsuccessful renditions of the non-Trinidadians reflected the greater failure on the part of the author. Roffey as well never seemed to be able to understand her foreign characters. Sabine herself threw in an occasional "mon Dieu",  but she never, not once, seemed like a Frenchwoman, particularly a woman from the south of France. The things she longed for--English strawberries, and misty rainy spring times, seemed  implausible to me. She particularly didn't seem like a person who had grown up during World War II. Oh, once she gave a sniff and said that she had seen a few things, but Sabine never explained what those things were, and I have to think that her wartime experiences would have shaped her, particularly when she was faced with turbulent--even violent--situations in her new home. Roffey's failure to make Sabine really come alive as a woman beyond a home-counties English stereotype was a real drawback for me, and was my main source of dissatisfaction. I still enjoyed listening to the book, and was glad to round out my reading time in the Caribbean with a modern novel that dealt, over a long period of time, over the struggles between the native-born and the expatriate inhabitants to live in a changing world, but it wasn't as satisfying a read for me as it was for many of my GR friends.

                                                             Three Stars


  1. I'm not sure you read it this way, but I understood her to not have actually sent those letters, but that they were the only place where she could be honest.

    I think I fell in love with the book because I was reading it while I was in St. Maarten and the descriptions matched what I was seeing!

  2. Yes, the descriptions were the best part of the book for me, too.