Somehow, Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle slipped completely beneath my radar last year even though it made the Orange Prize shortlist. When I saw it on NetGalley, I was eager to request it, though I did have a couple of reservations at first.
Starting with a brutal attack in 2006 then jumping back fifty years, the book charts the agonizingly slow dissolution of a couple’s marriage. French-born Sabine marries a British man named George, whose job plunges the two of them into a politically unstable Trinidad that’s still trying to throw off the chains of colonialism. Adventurous George can’t wait to go and make a name for itself, and though Sabine has reservations, she’s determined to make it work even though she hates it. She’s promised a maximum of three years in the country, at which point the two would move back to England.
As the reader knows from the first part of the book, the two end up staying on the island for fifty years. Their lives fill with various betrayals, and in Sabine’s mind, the hills of Trinidad become the curvy Other Woman seducing George away. He embraces the country immediately, settling easily into the way of life. Sabine is the exact opposite: everything confuses her, the race and class relations on the island shame her, and the politics infuriate her. As the years pass, Sabine is left more alone than ever. Even her two children, whom she tries to raise as properly “British” as possible, leave her feeling alienated:
My children were both born on the island. They were Creole. I was only dimly conscious of this, at first. Venus mothered them almost as much as I did, hugging them to her black breast, singing them her African lullabies, loving them as her own. They wore her smell as much as mine, they knew her voice, obeyed her wishes…So my children knew two mothers: one black, one white. They extracted love from us equally, needed us equally.
Although I was initially disappointed that Part One gave away the ending of George and Sabine’s story, that disappointment was quickly swept aside as I delved into Part Two, which explains how the two got to that point in their lives. It is an utterly fascinating back story full of betrayal and political upheaval. Roffey expertly weaves together an insightful portrait of a country with tumultuous race, class, and gender relations, and I loved her gift for describing things:
Here was the colonial old guard: bureaucrats, civil servants, the Police Commissioner, his cronies. Hummingbirds hovered near the vases of Bermuda lilies, blurs of iridescent green, their wing-beats like a hurricane’s fury. The cucumber sandwiches had curled, the stuffed eggs perspired and glistened like fat men, the salmon mousse had collapsed into itself, making a revolting pink mess. Ice in glasses vanished in minutes. Everything disappeared as we avoided the subject of heat.
My main concern when I first read the synopsis of this book was that it would suffer from Dances with Wolves Syndrome. You know…white person “goes native” and proceeds to tell a story about people of color from the white person’s perspective, in effect speaking on the Other’s behalf and telling a very stereotypical, one-sided narrative. There were time I felt the book flirted dangerously with that line; even though several secondary characters–almost all minorities–play important roles, only George and Sabine receive full character development. But ultimately, Roffey (herself a white Caribbean woman) produces a much smarter book than that, crafting a complex narrative that acknowledges the devastating effects of colonialism while staying true to the abandonment and emotional traumas that Sabine spends half a century trying to cope with.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a gorgeous, richly-written book that I could not put down. I was amazed that at how a book packed with so much history and politics could fly by so fast. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes on Monique Roffey’s future endeavors.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was published by Penguin on April 26, 2011 by Penguin Books.