Gallavanting round London, taking part in photography challenges and a bank holiday weekend in the Highlands and a month has passed since I read Monique Roffey’s 2010 Orange shortlisted novel. Got to admit it’s fading a little now. Fortunately I took some notes.
It’s always a risky move when novelists choose to write in reverse chronological sequence. Why set themselves the additional challenge of keeping the reader interested when the ending is already known? Is the “why did it come to this?” sufficient when the suspense of the “what did it come to” is removed?
In Monique Roffey’s defence, I did read to the end (which is more than can be said for Sarah Water’s The Night Watch) even though I didn’t find the final 2/3 rds as compelling as the first. I did, however, rate the novel at the time of reading so don’t let my fuzziness put you off.
In the first section George and Sabine Harwood are approaching the end of their long marriage. It becomes obvious that their marriage is broken – has been for a long time – the legacy of past misunderstandings, betrayals and resentments. And yet they have stayed together – George, making his fortune, building his villa (his castle) with Sabine supporting him, in Trinidad where she arrived as a young bride for a maximum of 3 years. A country which has always remained foreign to her and one she has always wanted to flee. George had his career and his affairs, Sabine had her children and her ambiguous relationship with Eric Williams, the leading Trinidadian politician of his day. The nature of that relationship is a microcosm of how Sabine feels about Trinidad as a whole and the fact that her house is filled with letters she had written to Williams, but never sent, an indication of how the politics of the time was more than an undercurrent in her life and marriage.
The questions at the end of that first section obviously why did they stay together and why didn’t they – the hated whites – leave, particularly when it became so dangerous for them to remain. In answering those questions, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, provides an illuminating insight into life in Trinidad in the run up to and immediately following independence in 1962. Surprisingly, it covers much of the same political ground Black Water Rising, also on the 2010 Orange shortlist. It seems black politics of the 60’s is the theme of choice for this year’s Orange prize judges.
Roffey’s prose is precise with wonderful imagery and very human characters. As political change disintegrates into political turmoil, the sense of threat becomes palpable and old Trinidad, represented by Sabine’s maid’s mother, becomes a very real danger. This demonstrates Roffey’s skill – forget not that the ending is already known. Yet Sabine, and this I found to be the only real false note, retains an unbelievable naivety. Contrast this with the reason for the Harwood’s non-departure which turns out to be so mundane, it’s a stroke of genius. For on such moments of normality do whole futures often hinge.