The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

17th May 2011

Review copy info: I requested this book from NetGalley, and thankfully, Penguin USA approved my review request.

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?  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

Other opinions:

Ellen at Fat Books, Thin Women

Nomad Reader

  • I was confused by the structure too. i never got around to writing about the 3rd person, 1st person shift, but that seemed needless to me, or rather not well thought out. some authors play with structure in interesting and unexpected ways that manage to bring something more out of a book, but roffey seemed like she was just goofing around with it – like she got bored with 3rd person and decided to go into 1st.

    i wonder what order she wrote the halves of the book in. it seems impossible to me that it was the first half, and like you say, i wish someone had told me to ignore roffey’s structuring of the novel, read the second half, then the first. i think i would have had a completely different, and better, reading experience had i done that.

    • pickygirl

      Odd choices, both. Nomad Reader (link above) actually really liked the structure, so I guess part of that is just preference, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one. In fact, in going back to the first part for quotes, I noticed there were several spots that referenced events that actually happened in the second half (first part, chronologically). They are ineffective where they are unless read opposite of how it’s packaged.

      • it would be interesting to go back and check that out – makes me wish i had a paperback copy rather than an ebook, then i’d actually get around to doing that sort of back & forth. When I started the second half I thought that in some ways reading their older years first, seeing where they ended up, made the second half more effective…but only slightly, only in maybe the first chapter or two of the second half, and not worth all the miseries i felt were inflicted on me by the narrative structure.

        • pickygirl

          I went back and forth a bit before writing my review. Your last sentence cracks me up.

  • I enjoyed your review and the story itself sounds so interesting, although perhaps frustrating to read. One wonders whether the author wouldn’t have gotten similar feedback from other readers earlier in the process- sounds like a simple fix might have made a big difference for you. Or maybe going in knowing about the structure will make a difference for other readers.

    • pickygirl

      It really, really is fascinating, and I hope I haven’t deterred you by my review because, as I said, the writing is top notch. As for your comment about early feedback, I ALWAYS wonder this. Then it makes me wonder if it was an editorial decision or if the author didn’t want to change it. Hm. Good question.

  • I really liked the backwards structure, but it’s a structure I’m partial to in general. When I don’t know what’s going to happen, I tend to worry too much about plot, but knowing where characters will end up changes my focus and often increases my interest. Like with this book, knowing things would end as they did in Trinidad got me more emotionally involved in Sabine’s story. The sense of dread just stayed with me all through that second half.

    I wasn’t sure why she shifted from third to first person, but it didn’t bother me.

    • pickygirl

      Teresa – that’s a good point. A really good point. I guess since I didn’t anticipate or expect it, it threw me. Plus, as I mentioned in another comment, I felt like I missed a lot of references that were made in the first part of the book. But – an excellent lesson in perspective. I know Nomad Reader really liked the structure as well.

  • Lovely review — I’m reviewing this in June and looking forward to it — although I sometimes get v anxious about bad marriage motifs in novels. I appreciate your tips about the structure — even though I have an ebook ARC, I might try flipping it around and reading it backwards. We’ll see how imaginative I get.

    • pickygirl

      Well, as for the bad marriage, it felt genuine. The two people love each other, but they don’t like the people they have each become and what they have allowed to come between them. I’ll be interested to see what you think as it really was a great book.

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  • As you know, I’m reading this right now so I’m going to keep an eye out for this change in structure. I’m so glad to hear that you loved it.

  • Once you said you’d read this book, I on purpose avoided your review. I finished reading it, wrote my review, let it sit a day or so, then came back to see what you thought after getting a few comments on my blog.

    Wow. We had the same opinion – great story but awkward structure. It was like reading two different books, and the first one is noticeably better than the second.

    I love, love the story. I just don’t care for the presentation.

    • pickygirl

      I do that too. If I know I’m about to read something, I avoid other reviews. Glad you enjoyed the story, but yeah – structure didn’t work for me, though others said it did for them.