By Andre Bagoo
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, by Monique Roffey
(Simon and Schuster, ISBN 978-1-84737-500-1, 439 pp)
I was seduced. The first hundred pages had everything you could want in a bedtime partner: they were fascinating, provocative, funny, beautiful. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle has an irresistible central plot device. The idea is this: that the late Dr Eric Williams, arguably the most influential and important politician Trinidad and Tobago has ever seen, at the height of his power had an affair with a married woman he met in the street. Such an affair, like most affairs, is not exactly implausible. But it’s the idea of a novel being based on the hidden secrets of its titular character, Sabine, coupled with the apparent reach of her seduction, that intrigues.
Monique Roffey’s novel follows a white couple who move to Trinidad in the 1950s and end up spending their lives in the country. The British husband, George, loves the island. His French wife Sabine wants to go back to Europe. George works as a journalist for a daily newspaper specialising in the “big” interview. George is somewhat guilty for insisting that the family stay in Trinidad, against the wishes of Sabine. And he gets caught up in dealing with the brutal beating of the son of his housekeeper. The first half of the novel, told via an omniscient narrator, chronicles that incident as well as a series of George’s interviews with Trinidad celebrities. His subjects range from (now former) Prime Minister Patrick Manning to the calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow, and even Brian Lara. All of these interviews — or, rather, the fictional depiction of George’s process of interviewing — are entertaining to read. For example, George’s encounter with Manning is a spectacular tour de force demonstration in how not to conduct a proper interview:
George arrived early at Whitehall . . . parked in a space under the shade of an illustrious Samaan tree. From the glovebox he retrieved a flask of Vat 19 and a packet of Panadol Extra, knocking back two pills with two swigs of rum. He knocked back a third swig for good luck, a fourth for courage. Then a fifth, larger swig. Instantly, he felt much happier.
The resulting “interview” is a fascinating fictional document. And a daring one, given what some Trinidadians perceived as Manning’s tight grip on power and his tendency to suppress critical or unflattering accounts of his administration (the novel was published when he was still in office). Roffey, in an interview for the arts blog PLEASURE, said jokingly she imagined Manning putting out a hit on her because of her book. Readers of this scene, as well as other sections of the novel in which characters freely offer their opinions on the former prime minister, will understand why. Perhaps Roffey, who was born in Trinidad in 1965 — and who lists her fears as including heights, snakes, and sharks, but not prime ministers — felt emboldened to write such episodes into her novel because she is now based in London. Equally plausible is the possibility that her intimacy with the material (the characters of George and Sabine are loosely based on her own family) has given her a certain degree of comfort and allowed her the freedom to be brazen with her material.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is more than just fantasy and entertainment. Behind all this fun, Roffey, ambitiously, has done something remarkable. She manages to deal with all the major social problems besetting contemporary Trinidad in recent years via the prism of two characters who feel at odds with their environment. For instance, Roffey gets behind the Soca Warrior mania when Trinidad and Tobago became the smallest country ever to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006. She makes clear this is a country plagued by crime, sleaze, and cronyism, lacking in basic amenities like proper healthcare and infrastructure, and a country also socially divided by race. Dealing with these issues, the book sometimes shines and does what few novels successfully pull off: capturing, like a newsreel, the state of a society.
Take, for example, her examination of police corruption and its link with crime, as well as the absurdity of “the blimp,” the security airship introduced under Manning’s administration to deal with crime, which has gone out of control:
Every day, the blimp now circled over Port of Spain. Sabine hated it, of course. It had cost 40 million dollars. This was the second blimp, in fact, the first having had problems staying up. Its mission, officially, was surveillance. The PNM had informed the country that the blimp was part of their crime-busting initiative, stationed up there to spy on the slums of Laventille and Belmont and other trouble spots, where the gangs roamed
. . . The blimp hovered high above the coughing city. A stout blue mini-zeppelin, it puttered around, resembling a huge udder escaped from a pantomime cow.
But the spine of the book is Roffey’s treatment of the Williams–Sabine affair — which is really just a MacGuffin of sorts, a plot element that allows the novelist to deal with larger historic events, in chapters with titles like “The University of Woodford Square”, “Massa Day Done”, and “Black Power”, amounting to a kind of personal history of Trinidad.
Throughout the first half of the novel, Roffey skillfully gives us small snippets and flashbacks from Sabine’s past, when she interacted with Williams — flashbacks that promise more and keep the reader hooked:
Life was simple, like a hermit’s. She ate very little. She drank a lot, though. Never mind about that. She smoked her cigarette to the nub and crushed it out, then rolled over and curled herself up into a ball under the covers. Eric Williams — the football. She remembered taking him in her arms. Those bleak days, Port of Spain in flames. She shut them out but they returned again.
They do return. We gradually learn that Sabine has written hundreds and hundreds of letters to Williams and hidden these in boxes in her husband’s office without him ever noticing. When George finally discovers the letters, piece by piece, we inch closer and closer to Williams. We learn more about political issues that appear to be close to Sabine’s heart — and more about her heart, too. For the undelivered letters to Williams, which may or may not have come after a sexual relationship (I won’t spoil any of the book’s surprises), are the means for Sabine to mediate the problems of her relationship with George, which revolve around her own passivity and George’s selfishness.
Further, all of characters in the novel are revealed through their relationships with Williams, who thus becomes a central conduit through which life in Trinidad and Tobago is understood. Take George’s observations on Manning:
People said Manning had worshipped Eric Williams, was in awe of him. People said that whenever Manning was in a tight spot he asked himself: What would Williams have done?
Roffey keeps us waiting for dozens of pages before we get a glimpse at Sabine’s first meeting with Williams, which happens on a street in Port of Spain while she is riding on — you guessed it — her green bicycle, which has, following her arrival in Trinidad, apparently become famous. Then, first contact established (I give you no details for your own good, Reader), there is a second meeting. Further encounters ensue, over a period of years.
The book falters, however, in its second half. Roffey, after setting up so much intrigue and suspense about the Williams–Sabine affair, then finds it difficult to explain how Sabine came to be hooked. After her initial meetings with Williams, Sabine decides to write him. This course of action, which would be obsessively repeated for the rest of Sabine’s life, is described by Roffey thus:
Eric Williams became Trinidad’s first Prime Minister. No longer a tryout, a by-proxy affair. He and his party, the PNM, would rule undisturbed by the Crown . . . I was moody all day. I clubbed cockroaches. I played with the children. I took a shower and sat down afterwards, plucking my eyebrows too thin. We’d been invited to a party to celebrate but I didn’t feel celebratory.
“You’re jumpy as a cat,” George noticed.
I had an idea.
I’d write to him!
This seems a little too neat. Later, Sabine concludes that Williams has been a failure. George, discovering Sabine’s practice of writing the politician, goes into a crisis, leading up to a tragic incident. Sabine, showing classic symptoms of depression throughout the book, has a kind of nervous breakdown. All of this is well developed by the author. But one part of it does not convince: Sabine’s passive acceptance of her fate.
The problem is this: Roffey takes great pains in the second half of the novel to recall a failed attempt by Sabine and George to flee Trinidad at the height of the Black Power uprising. Sabine appears intent on sabotaging her own flight. Perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps Roffey means to give us an unreliable narrator. But her later depression and unhappiness after being made to stay in Trinidad — an unhappiness that deepens her interest in Williams — is so intense that the idea of self-sabotage appears to trivialise it all.
So, like most seductions, this one starts out hot and heavy — then comes to an end that does not quite match up to its first flush.
Andre Bagoo is a journalist and blogger working in Trinidad. In 2005 he was shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Writing Prize for his writing. He writes for Newsday and has published poems and book reviews in journals like the Boston Review and Draconian Switch.