Friday, 25 November 2016
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Publication date: 26 April 2011
Audio version - 2014 Audible Inc.
Duration 12 hrs and 38 mins
An unforgettable love story, brimming with passion and politics, set over fifty years in Trinidad – a place at times enchanting, and at times highly dangerous . . .
When George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England as young newlyweds, they have with them just a couple of suitcases and Sabine's prized green bicycle. Their intention is to stay for not more than three years, but George falls in love with the island. Sabine, however, is ill at ease with the racial segregation and unrest in her new home, and takes solace in the freedom of her green bicycle.
George and Sabine become more entangled in their life on the island – in all its passion and betrayals – and Sabine's bicycle takes her places she wouldn't otherwise go. One day George make a discovery that forces him to realise the extent of the secrets between them, and is seized by an urgent, desperate need to prove his love for her – with tragic consequences.
My Review - Caution may contain spoilers
The novel is in two parts. The first part is set in 2006. George and Sabine have lived in Trinidad for 50 years and are in their 70s. They are a wealthy white minority couple living among a predominantly *non-white population. The son of their house keeper has been badly beaten by the police and, both outraged by this, they try to do what they can to help.
The second part of the book goes back 50 years to the time when George and Sabine first arrived in Trinidad. They are enthusiastic and excited about their prospects. However, as reality sets in, Sabine realises that living in a strange country far away from home isn't the paradise she thought it would be. This is not a problem for George as he has a full time high profile job to keep him busy and, unlike back in England, he is now a 'big fish'. The longer they stay the more George loves it and the less Sabine does. Sabine becomes angry and resentful as she fails to convince George to leave., which results in the slow and steady decline of their marriage.
This is happening at a time when the country is undergoing major change; a time of political unrest when colonial rule on the island is under threat and the birth of the republic is looming. This is being sparked by the people taking notice of the lectures being given by Dr Eric Williams, the charismatic young Oxford educated Trinidadian, who speaks to them about the possibility of a better way of life. He becomes a political activist and later on becomes the much-loved leader (Prime Minister) of the republic. One day while he addresses a crowd in the square in the heart of Port-of-Spain, Sabine is passing by on her bicycle. She stops and listens and, despite the talk being about ending British rule, she finds she is captivated and moved by him. This leads to an obsession that causes her to write Eric Williams a series of letters, revealing her inner thoughts and feelings. She continues to write to him for decades (until his death in 1981). She only posts the first one and keeps all the others hidden away in boxes.
So, what is this book about? It is a complex love story that spans the decades. It is not an obvious love story because the focus is on betrayal and resentment. Sabine has to compete not so much with other women who may have gained her husbands affection, but rather with a nation that has. She is convinced that she hates Trinidad because she loves George unconditionally and she believes he loves the island more than he loves her (since he is not prepared to leave for her sake, and back in those days a woman could not just up and leave her husband without serious consequences). Neither George nor Sabine communicate their feelings, and so truth and understanding is absent for most of their marriage.
The act of letter writing to Dr Williams was Sabine's form of (self) therapy. She would vent her anger and frustration by writing her feelings down and it felt more meaningful to her to address them to this charismatic man who inspired the very nation she resents. The truth only comes out decades later when George accidentally comes across the letters. When he reads them they have a profound effect on him. He is full of remorse and wants nothing more than to make up for the pain he has inflicted. Roffey is perceptive in her depiction of how people mellow and change (even become sentimental) with old age.
Sabine is an interesting and complex character. She is also an unreliable narrator. Her portrayal of Trinidad is, let's say, selective She is too self-absorbed to take notice of what is beyond the little bubble of a world she lives in. Like many self-absorbed types, she sees herself as a victim. All the while others around her suffer much worse, while she is oblivious. I found it difficult to feel much empathy for her. Her heart is in the right place, however. Over the years she develops a fondness of 'the help' and is quite devoted to them in later years. Although forever resentful, she comes to love the island as much as George - it becomes home. Eric Williams's charisma takes effect and she is completely charmed by him. In later years, after his death, like many, she becomes disillusioned as the country bears no resemblance to the ideals he talked about.
My verdict: This story is well worth reading. I listened to the audio version but I regret it. I would have been better off with the novel because I was irritated by the narration. I winced whenever there was dialogue involving Trinidadian characters. I understand that it is a difficult accent to do, but the narrator didn't even come close. Instead it was a really bad attempt at a Jamaican accent, which was distracting and rendered the story less convincing.
*I say 'non-white' because Trinidad is a racially diverse country with an almost equal ratio of Afro-Caribbean and Indian-Caribbean people. There are also people of Chinese, Spanish and Syrian descent (lets not forget those who are the products of the mixing of all these races). Sabine, in her unreliable way, only focuses on an Afro-Caribbean majority vs a white minority.