Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Disclaimer: The publishers provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a book that doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself; it has ideas, but it declares this so openly that no part of the novel is allowed to naturally take root in the reader’s mind. Roffey’s novel, about a couple from England, Sabine and George, living in Trinidad, opens with the pair in their seventies, entrenched in what seems a decades-long loathing of one another, an obsession with their physical decline, and an endless rehashing of memories and perceived slights. This section of the story, told in the third person, takes up nearly half of the novel.

Roffey’s decision to open the novel with this overlong segment is baffling. Sabine and George are revealed to the reader, but they’re never really shown to us; or rather, they never show us who they are. Sabine is at the center of the first section, as she is at the center of the novel as a whole, but she is never developed well enough that she can carry this weight. Rather, Roffey attempts to make Sabine a compelling character through a sort of trickery, by telling us that other characters find something to look at in her. There’s her and George’s focus on her physical decline, “its runaway curves and generous swells”, as a means of establishing that Sabine and the island are in competition for her husband’s affections – the “island [that] flexed its charms, laughed in her face as she withered.” There’s the way that everyone around her, her daughter, her servants, her husband, recall Sabine and how she rode her green bicycle around Trinidad when they were newly arrived, when she thought she would be in the country for three years rather than for the rest of her life. There’s the way they all, of them, tie Sabine and the green bicycle and Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, together in the manner that Roffey evidently wants the reader to.

The way characters in The White Woman on the Green Bicycle remember reads as false, because their memories are so tightly focused on what Roffey wants the reader to focus on: who Sabine was, who she became. Nothing in this novel is allowed to be insignificant, and in limiting the aspects of her characters we see, Roffey gives only the sense that these characters are only partially drawn, that they only exist so far as they can serve Roffey’s vision of a novel about the end of the colonial era in Trinidad.

The second half of the novel, divided into three sections focusing on the years following Sabine and George’s arrival in Trinidad, are stronger than the first section – but not so strong that they can recover the novel. The way Sabine becomes tangled up in Trinidad, first thinking she and George will stay just for their three-year contract, then a little longer, then realizing that she has no way of supporting herself should she leave Trinidad without George, reads claustrophobically. Knowing, as we do, that Sabine will still be in Trinidad in her seventies, it is sometimes painful to read her desire to return to England; but Roffey is heavy-handed even here, as she foreshadows for Sabine the future we readers already know.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle at times does a remarkable job capturing the feel of Trinidad, Sabine’s sense of being out of place in a foreign culture that is in the process of rejecting people with her skin color, and the language of Trinidad. It fails, though, in developing characters that can match the landscape surrounding them.

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I’ve been interested in reading and reviewing this book since it made its official appearance. I think you might find this interview with Monique Roffey, conducted by a dear colleague of mine and hosted on his eclectic blog, worthy of perusal: http://pleasurett.blogspot.com/2010/04/thisdiscoursehas-nostartmiddlend.html

I believe that I’m urged on to read ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’, despite, or rather, because of, the multivalent response of your own reaction. If the novel ‘at times does a remarkable job capturing the feel of Trinidad’, then this is something I definitely want to witness for myself. At the same time, unstable characterization is something of which I am particularly leery, so I’ll be keeping a weather eye out for that.

Has this been the first book you’ve read in which Trinidad was a focal point? I’m always curious about what the non-Caribbean person’s exposure to Caribbean literature is like.

Comment by Shivanee @ Novel Niche

This is the first book I’ve read with Trinidad at its center. One positive thing I can say about the book, that I didn’t in the review, is that it got me interested in reading more. Roffey’s writing didn’t thrill me and I think some of my disappointment in the book grew out of the interest I had in some of the things that were going on in it, in the ideas of these political figures who can capture a people then let them down, in the complications of moving towards independent rule.

Thanks for linking to that interview. It’s probably damning praise to not say anything better of a writer than that she seems likeable but, well, Roffey seems likeable.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Ok – I’m skipping over most of this ONLY because I just just finished it at 3 am and want to sort of preserve my thoughts until I can review it. I’ll come back after I’m finished. It’s weird because I hadn’t heard of it before. Discovered it through NetGalley.

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