Trinidad in the 50s. A verdant landscape. Racial and class tension. In the middle of it all, a white woman rides her green Raleigh bicycle, drawing stares, criticisms, and admiration.
Sabine and George arrive in Trinidad for George’s job, a promotion he never would have secured in Britain. Here, George has a career ladder to climb, and Sabine is along for the ride. The couple initially sign on for three years, and once Sabine arrives at her roach-infested habitation, three years may as well be an eternity. As George acclimates to Trinidad, Sabine withdraws, resentful and uncomfortable in her new surroundings. George is blind to the political tension, but Sabine sees it – up close and personal – in the form of the charismatic Eric Williams, Trinidad’s hope for change.
George plants his roots deeper and deeper, and as Sabine pulls back from him, he turns to other women. What, for Sabine, is so much worse, though, is the island’s grip on her husband – something she cannot fight.
The couple grow older and have children, disappointing one another, as Eric Williams disappoints the island who saw him as a champion. Sabine begins writing letters to Williams, letters she never sends, but which have her anger and desperation poured out onto the pages.
…But this isn’t how Roffey tells the story. No, she begins at the end of George and Sabine’s lives, when they are old, angry, sad, and regretful. George is now working as a journalist, trying much too late to make his wife love him once again. Sabine sits in despair, long past ready to leave the island and its people she knows don’t want her.
Though I loved so much of this book – the idea of a leader who promises so much and disappoints time and time again; a woman angry at herself and her husband for pretending to understand the issues the islanders face; a man so enamored of a place he tries to make it his own without heeding his delicate place in its environs; a family forged of different stations, races, and blood; the descriptions of an incredible, intoxicating island – I cannot quite figure out why Roffey chose to structure the novel the way she did.
Visually it looks like this:
Ending ——————> Climax (3rd person)
Beginning —————> Different climax (1st person – Sabine)
The telling felt abrupt and odd. Playing with structure is quite popular at the moment, and I know it can be effective, but I didn’t like it – the structure, that is.
The elderly Sabine and George were much more interesting to me than their younger selves, simply because I felt their characters were more true (this may partially be because of the shift in narrator). Sabine’s obsession with politics and suffocation were palpable. George’s desire and love for his disappointed wife broke my heart. At one point, Roffey writes, “George still never knew what to say. He took himself out into the garden, where her sighs hadn’t spread.” Above all the politics and dissension, this book is about a marriage, the intricacies, the candor, the secrets, and the love that accompanies it all.
Roffey’s writing is magnificent. (This book made the 2010 Orange Prize shortlist). I just wish someone had told me to pick the book up, skip to Book Two, read it, and then flip back to Book One to finish it up.
Have any of you read this book or Roffey’s other work?Â If you’ve read this, did the structure bother you? And the big question: who now wants to visit Trinidad?
jenn aka the picky girl
Monique Roffey’s website