Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Set in post-colonial Trinidad, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle explores the boundaries of love in a marriage spanning fifty years. The book begins in 2006 and then goes back in time to 1956, switching narrators so that we, the reader, see the marriage from the perspective of both husband and wife.

Trinidad, in 1956, has just elected its first leader, Eric Williams, and the country is passionately in love with him. He is Oxford-educated and promises to help the poor with the basic necessities they are lacking. Many, such as Granny Seraphina, have no running water and live in former slave quarters. The poverty is shocking. The white residents, most of them English, are buying land cheaply and living like royalty.

Among these residents are George and Sabine Harwood. George is a civil servant in England whose life has been drab and uneventful. Taking his young wife, he comes to Trinidad to work. He soon falls in love with the land and its people.

Sabine, however, longs for England. She is oppressed by the heat and sensitive to the racial tensions plaguing the country. George sees only the sensuous beauty. When George discovers the cache of letters Sabine has written to Eric Williams, he mourns the erosion of his marriage.

"If only he'd known then. Eric Williams--of all people... Williams had died a broken man...He had (failed). George was like her, though; ...the same as Sabine, a cheat. He had cheated on Sabine all along, from the first day they arrived, stepping off the Cavina. It had been immediate, a strong physical attraction. He had fallen, and that was that. Head over heels, with the sounds and smells, with the smiles and shapes, with all the bewitching qualities of another woman called Trinidad (p. 73)."

Monique Roffey uses the country's disappointment in Eric Williams and its eventual dissolution into riots as a metaphor of the marriage itself. Violence breaks out around them, Molotov cocktails are thrown into their yard, the dogs are poisoned. Meanwhile, George and Sabine argue and call each other names; their sexual relations are laced with anger. "Stupid man," Sabine thinks. "His castle built on sand drenched in the blood of thousands of dark-skinned souls, those brought to Trinidad whether they liked it or not, forced to toil unpaid, all those who lived here before them hounded into extinction (p. 390)."

This book portrays the inequities of Trinidad's class system in rich, descriptive language. We see the home of Grandma Serephina in all of its squalor. Grandma Serephina, herself, is an engaging character who attracts and repels in equal measure. Her anger, hatred, and disappointment reflect that of the downtrodden on the island. Her sense of injustice resonates with Sabine, as it does with the reader.

In 2010, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was a finalist for Britain's prestigious Orange Prize. It is a captivating depiction of the limits of love even as that love never dies. And it is the story of an island whose beauty and resources are ravaged by expatriates, much as they were by the colonial powers years before.

This is a powerful novel, written in first person narrative first by George, and then by Sabine. It is a unique style that brings the reader closer to the characters and the events that shape them. Roffey has written a haunting novel that remains in one's mind long after the final page.

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