The White Woman On The Green Bicycle (Monique Roffey)


Another book club book and, to me, a lot of it was like another course in a meal of boiled string.  The first part of the book describes the disillusioned life of Sabine and George, a pair of expatriates on Trinidad in the present day, while the first part deals with the period from their arrival in 1956 to their failure to leave during a period of social unrest in 1970.  Sabine also writes obsessively to Eric Williams, the first leader of independent Trinidad.

And I found a lot of it incompetent and consequently unbelievable.  There are many occasions where a simple point is dragged out over a page of banal dialogue.  Shortly before George dies in the swimming pool, we are treated to a long description of how Sabine cuts his hair and (we may suppose) ritually castrates him.  Then the description of his corpse makes great play of the long white hair waving round his face.

George is described as ‘an extrovert, a bookish English eccentric’.  On the one hand, this is a chain of cliches and on the other ‘extrovert’ and ‘bookish’ are hardly consistent. Then again we have Sabine–she says at one point that she’s seen life having lived through WWII in Antibes.  As far as I know, Antibes was occupied by the Italians and nothing much happened there by way of a war.  But with this experience behind her she’s supposed to be nonplussed by the sight of a poorly-stocked grocer’s, but which has cliched mangoes exploding like cliched hand-grenades (in which case the interior of the shop would have contained a mass of broken flesh if nothing else).  This nugatory  wartime experience (she would have been I guess ten at the time) does indeed help her at the end of the first part when she finds the gun that George has hidden in the basket of the green bicycle and when she goes to shoot Bobby Camacho the corrupt police superintendent it miraculously turns out to be functioning and loaded and with the safety catch off and her experience as a pre-pubescent resistante means that she doesn’t break her wrist instead of killing him.


There were some more acceptable moments.  I found the various Trinidadian words and realia introduced into the text quite interesting, and I thought the idea of making George do interviews for the newspaper in his retirement so that we got to meet famous people like Brian Lara, Patrick Manning and Mighty Sparrow was effective.  Maybe not necessary, since Trinidad’s not a large place, but effective anyway.

Roffey quotes the first line of the following poem by Phyllis Shand Allfrey as the epigraph to the book:

Love for an island is the sternest passion:
pulsing beyond the blood through roots and loam
it overflows the boundary of bedrooms
and courses past the fragile walls of home.

Those nourished on the sap and milk of beauty
(born in its landsight) tremble like a tree
at the first footfall of the dread usurper-
a carpet-bagging mediocrity.

Theirs is no mild attachment, but rapacious
craving for a possession rude and whole;
lovers of islands drive their stake, prospecting
to run the flag of ego up the pole,

sink on the tented ground, hot under azure,
plunge in the heat of earth and smell the stars
of the incredible vales. At night, triumphant,
they lift their eyes to Venus and to Mars.

Their passion drives them to perpetuation:
they dig, they plant, they build and they aspire
to the eternal landmark; when they die
the forest covers up their set desire.

Salesmen and termites occupy their dwellings,
their legendary politics decay.
Yet they achieve an ultimate memorial:
they blend their flesh with the beloved clay.

If I was going to be kind, and could somehow resist the famous quote from Else Lasker-Schuler that A true poet does not say ‘azure, a true poet says ‘blue’, I suppose you could see Roffey’s book as a commentary on this poem.  Both Eric Williams and Patrick Manning describe George as a carpet-bagging mediocrity and he certainly craves possession in buying a substantial tract of Trinidad and runs the flag of ego up the pole (to attract women, perhaps?)  At the end of the book, George’s house is certainly of the termite-ridden type, and the legendary politics of Eric Williams in his early days have quite decayed.

A more realistic view would be that this book is what we would have had from Jean Rhys if she’d been deprived of her talent, difficult life experiences, impossible character and knowledge of French but had received an education in recompense.

It has been put to me that only a man could be so stupid, so insensitive, so male as not to take this book at its own valuation.  Well, maybe that is indeed so…

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