The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
Author: Monique Roffey
Newlyweds George and Sabine Hardwood arrive in postindependence Trinidad from England in 1956. Struggling with loneliness, exhaustion, and the challenges of racial segregation at the dawn of a new political era, Sabine finds some comfort in expressing her hopes and dreams in letters to Eric Williams, Trinidad’s charismatic new leader. The letters are never sent, but when George finds them many years later, the discovery sets off a devastating series of consequences as other secrets from their marriage emerge.
Before I get into themes and characters, I'd like to say that this novel is very unique in style. Its slathered in vivid, sensory descriptions of the island of Trinidad and loaded with onomatopoeia, colloquial language and Trinidadian accents. I found myself reading aloud often and I still need to hear what a 'steupse' sounds like in-person. It's also written in a weird reverse chronology, starting with the latter parts of George and Sabine's life on the island, then jumping to when they first arrive and progressing back to the future. Perhaps not an innovative style, but a unique combination.
I was white. White in a country where this was to be implicated, complicated, and, whatever way I tried to square it, guilty. Genocide. Slavery. Indenture. Colonialism -- big words which were linked to crimes so hideous no manner of punishment was adequate. (p.355)
Roffey takes a crack at weaving a personal story about George and Sabine with the historical and political story of Trinidad. When the readers are introduced to George and Sabine they will find two people in a loveless marriage, which according to Sabine is largely the fault of her husband. George falls in love the island, enjoying the ideal, the picturesque, the exotic women, the potential Hardwood legacy he could never have established in the United Kingdom. George ignores the political problems and the structural integrity of his marriage. Sabine on the other hand, couldn't stand the island from the beginning. She wants to leave before she has even arrived. She can never compete with a beautiful island which offers so much more to her husband than she ever could. For so long Sabine denies that her fate and happiness are tied to someone else's ideas. To me it seemed as if the injustice, corruption and political uprisings in Trinidad were a sort of background noise to Sabine and George's drama and only fueled Sabine's hysterics. The personal and political stories are weakly connected. I suppose the intent was to mirror marital strife with political strife.
'Eric William will destroy this country.' Bonny's eyes hardened.
'Oh really? He's a well-educated man. He's been to Oxford. He's an historian. How many people here can claim that? Do you think there's one person in this garden with a university degree?'
Bonny quivered, a snarl on her lips. 'Williams is obsessed with slavery. It's all about the past. He can't let it drop. He should forget about it. It's boring.' (249)
There were a few things that irk me in this novel, all of them related to Sabine. Her naivete about history, colonial legacy, and race relations annoys the hell out of me. She fancies herself way too much and is overly self-righteous about political problems; and she has no real intention of righting any wrongs. Maybe having sincere friendships with her two maids is her way of righting the wrongs. Maybe that's all is necessary since she's forever planning to leave Trinidad. Her contrary mannerisms are most apparent whenever someone insults the People's National Movement, more specifically, Eric Williams. Sabine takes develops an intense--almost creepy-- obsession with Dr. Eric Williams, the leader of the PNM. Why would a white woman determined to leave Trinidad be interested in the country's new revolutionary leader? Well, I have a couple of theories: (1) it's a tactic of self-preservation; know your enemy. Eric Williams wants her and what she represents (colonial chains) out of the country. In a way understanding his motives helps her to determine her movements. And (2) she's having an affair with him, an emotional affair of course, but an affair nonetheless. Emotional because her fear and physical repulsion of black men is too great for the affair to be truly physical. She write hundreds of unsent letters to Eric Williams, mainly complaining of her husband George and life on the island. She compiles clippings of his speeches and appearances. She hides them. And Why? What does Eric Williams represent? The courage to lead her own revolution, to put her foot down, to say enough is enough...I don't know why she didn't leave George.
I wanted to love this book and there were many parts that I did love, but overall I only 'liked' it.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle