The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey was shortlisted for the UK’s Orange Award in 2010 and for the Encore Award in 2011, so I was really pleased when the publisher gave me the opportunity to read it. Monique Roffey is from Trinidad and is at the forefront of an emerging new generation of exceptional Caribbean authors.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle spans a period from the 1950’s through 2006, the period in which Trinidad gained independence from Great Britain, only to continue to struggle to take care of its people and succeed. The central characters are George and Sabine Harwood, who arrive in Trinidad from England in 1956 on pretty much the last ship of white colonists. George is British and his wife, Sabine, is French.
George accepted a three-year contract to work in Trinidad for his international shipping company, a promotion of sorts. He researched the island and had fallen in love with it before he ever saw it. His hidden agenda is that he and Sabine will live there for the rest of their lives; however, he has told Sabine they will only be there three years at most and that if she doesn’t like it then they will leave immediately. Obviously there’s a big difference between what George plans and what he’s disclosed to his wife. George loves Trinidad with a passion. Sabine suffers from the extreme heat and humidity, the otherness of it, and makes it known pretty soon that she wants to leave as soon as their contract is up. She is appalled when George keeps finding reasons to stay a little longer but she loves him so she tries to adjust.
“’My green bicycle. Remember it?’…Often Sabine would arrive at the dock to meet him after work. Her shorts revealed long, slim, honey-colored legs…Every man behind her stopped dead in their tracks to watch her pass…’I saw Trinidad on that bike. You know…saw the sights.’”
In 1956, ordinary white foreigners lived like kings on islands like Trinidad and Monique Roffey pulls no punches in this novel about the disparities between how they lived and how the islanders lived. The sense of entitlement, the biases and prejudices, the rancor and built-up rage, the corruption and injustices are laid bare on all sides.
When it becomes clear Great Britain will pull out of Trinidad, and the islanders will be put in charge of their own destiny, colonists abandon the island by the shipload, leaving everything behind. Some stay, however, and among them are George and Sabine.
“You, Sabine addressed the hill [in her mind]. All you do is watch. That’s all you’ve ever done. Sit back and observe the disaster going on…It’s my privilege [replied the hill].”
What happens after the messianic first Prime Minister, Eric Williams, and his successor take control and how their rule affects everyone on the island is one aspect of what makes this novel so riveting yet heartbreaking. The growing pains of independence and an ill-prepared country suddenly left to fend for itself are laid bare in this novel.
“Jennifer began to cry again. ’Dis Johnny police fella come fer Talbot two night ago. He bring tree odder policemen wid him. Dey take him up de hill, up Paramin Hill, Mr. Harwood…Dey give Talbot licks. Dey mash up his face, break his nose. Brek his ribs. De policeman who took de [Talbot’s] phone vexed wid him exposin’ what he did. He treaten Talbot. Tell him if he ever see Talbot again and Talbot alone, he go make him dead.’”
The story of The White Woman on a Green Bicycle is comprised of a multitude of very fine layers that are gradually peeled back to reveal George and Sabine’s relationship, their relationship with the islanders, island politics, and at the very heart of the story, the tropical beauty and uniqueness that is Trinidad.
“Every afternoon, around four, the iguana fell out of the coconut tree. Bdup! While sunbathing, it had fallen asleep, relaxing its grip, dropping from a considerable height. It always landed like a cat, on all fours, ready to fight. The dogs always went berserk, gnashing and chasing after the creature as it fled, scuttling across the grass, a streak of lime green disappearing off into the undergrowth.”
This novel is beautifully drawn and very evocative. It is intentionally uncomfortable in places yet that uncomfortableness is a good thing. You may love it and hate it at the same time but you’ll have to keep reading it because it is that compelling. However you feel about it, I believe you will learn a lot about Trinidad, about racism and entitlement, about unrealistic expectations, and about yourself. I feel like I’m a better person for having read it. I learned so much about Trinidad and gained a lot of empathy for the struggles such a nation goes through in its attempts to switch from paternal colonialism to self determination with no guidance. I believe it’s definitely worth reading.
If you’ve read any of Monique Roffey’s novels, including The Woman on the Green Bicycle, we’d love to get your comments on them or on her as a novelist. We’d also love to hear your comments about this review.
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