Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)

I was pleased to see that more than half of the Orange Prize shortlisted titles — including this novel — were still unread in my stacks. Reading the longlist was a crazy undertaking (see more talk of bookish craziness here) and I might just have left more of them unread for longer, if so many of those waiting for me weren’t swept along to the shortlist: now I’m re-inspired.

I started reading The White Woman on the Green Bicycle on the subway in the pre-morning-rush; I was lucky to have a seat because the violence in the novel’s opening scene is palpable, and it took me to that bookish place where my mouth hangs open and I sit stunned, just staring at the page, simultaneously hovering above the words inert and completely absorbed by them. It’s only four pages long but I was completely taken aback (it was also early morning, and a Monday morning at that).

Over the weekend, I’d read the Phyllis Allfrey poem, and it seemed a beautiful homage to an island; after reading the “Hurricane” chapter, I re-read the poem, and it read just as passionately, but more viscerally.

Obviously the words were the same, but that scene changed my approach and I felt a different side to the epigraph. Re-reading that poem yet again, after finishing the novel, it feels even more appropriate and I was overwhelmed by the alignment with the novel’s themes. (I read Alfrey’s The Orchid House a few years ago but now would love to re-read with Roffey’s novel in mind.)

The poem is titled “Love for an Island” and even that phrase alone hints at the novel’s dimensions. Although I think Allfrey was writing about Dominica, the Island in The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is Trinidad. But as much as it is about these Islands, I think the poem could as easily be about many other Islands, so perhaps you will imagine another Island entirely whilst reading these verses.

Then, imagine all the forms and expressions of love, imagine how easily its expression can be mistaken for other emotions, imagine all the cruelty and deceit that is exhibited in the world in love’s name, imagine the intersection between love and protection, how these motivations inspire and conflict. (I can’t help but think of Laila Lalami’s The Secret Son and M.J. Hyland’s This is How, the marriages in Sadie Jones’ Small Wars and Lorrie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs, the betrayals and the disappointments.) Imagine the conflicts and tensions, the sustenance and the endurance. Imagine it in regard to people, yes, but also to places, to hills and homesteads, to soil and waterways.

At one point, about a third of the way through the novel, a minor character is described as having “managed to look confused and disapproving and amused and happy all in one face” and then he shakes his head. (139) It’s impossible to know if he’s shaking it in confusion, disapproval, satisfaction or pleasure: there are a mass of emotions in this book, sometimes conflicting and sometimes aligning. And he is only a minor character. Imagine the depth of emotions expressed by George and Sabine, who contribute more directly and exhaustively throughout the 400 pages of narrative, over the course of fifty years.

(I say that tongue-in-reader’s-cheek because there’s nothing I love more than the conceit of taking a minor character and rewriting a book to give them centre stage for a time, so I’m assuming that in some other literary space this fellow is narrator and hero, but here the mass of emotions is more often and thoroughly expressed through other characters’ eyes, minds and hearts).

Trinidad comes alive in Roffey’s descriptions, but its animation comes not only from the author’s pen; you know that I’m spoiler-phobic and don’t want to interfere with other readers discovering fiction for themselves, so I don’t want to say too much about this, but Roffey ensures that the Island takes hold in this novel in a particularly wonderful way.

Trinidad also, however, claims prominence in this novel through George and Sabine (and the residents of the island, although readers are not immersed in their perspectives so directly); their relationships to the Island are fascinating and complex. They seemed more straightforward when I started reading, in the section of narrative set in 2006, but one of the things that I most enjoyed about reading this novel was seeing my own reactions deepen and transform, as I followed these characters, Trinidad included, from 1956 and back to present-day.

I’d never heard of Monique Roffey before she hit the Orange Prize longlist (and, now, shortlist), but I am thrilled to have discovered her work: I think this one will be nestling into my list of favourite reads for 2010.

Anyone else reading this one? Anyone have any other favourite Trinidadian reads?

In the months of April and May in 2010, I am Buried in Print on Mondays and Thursdays.
2010 Longlisted books bookchatted 7; Currently reading 2; Still to read 7; Can’t find 4.