The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

I read this book (courtesy of NetGalleys) while in London and on the way home, so it was a while ago now, and it’s high time I say something about it. It tells the story of a couple, Sabine and George Harwood, who move from England to Trinidad in order to advance George’s career. They don’t know it at the time, but they are on the last ship to bring British colonials into the country (Sabine is French, but has married an Englishman). Shortly after they arrive, change begins to happen: Trinidad eventually gains its independence under their charismatic although ultimately disappointing leader, Eric Williams, and the white colonists will lose their status and power.

The novel has an interesting structure: for the first third or so, it takes place in 2006 and portrays an elderly George and Sabine, describing how their marriage has evolved, how their children have turned out, and what their lives have become. After this section, we move back in time to read about their arrival in Trinidad in 1956, and we follow them in later sections through the 1960s and 70s. This backwards structure works well to show how George and Sabine end up where they do: we see the results of their lives in Trinidad first, and then we look back to the causes. So we read about their unhappiness — their overwhelming feeling of listlessness and pointlessness, their estrangement from their children, their isolation, their sense that it could have been completely different — and then we turn to their younger selves and read about the series of decisions that led to their remaining in Trinidad even when nearly all other British families left. They never intended to stay longer than a couple years, or at least that’s what Sabine believed. She was always eager to go, but George fell in love with the place and resisted a move. Eventually, they become part of the island and could no longer fit in back in England if they were to return.

The novel tells the story of their marriage, and also of the political and social changes happening in Trinidad, and the two stories come together in the figure of Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister. In the 2006 section, George finds a collection of letters Sabine has written to Williams — tons of letters, describing her life, her marriage, and her feelings about Williams’s administration. These letters bewilder George — why did she write him so much? Did she know him? It turns out that she met him a few times and they had a couple conversations, but mostly the relationship was carried on in her head. Writing the letters was her way of making sense of the changes happening in her life and in the country, and also of getting a little bit of revenge on George, who was unfaithful to her. Williams is one of the book’s main symbols: a symbol of hope at first, of possibility, and then of disappointment and disillusionment. He becomes a way for Sabine to focus and express her hopes and then her anger.

The other main symbol is the green bicycle of the title: the bicycle Sabine used to ride to explore the city and meet her husband after his day’s work. This was a highly unconventional thing to do, although Sabine didn’t know this at first; she thought she was just enjoying herself and being free-spirited, when she was getting a reputation that stuck with her for being different from all the other British women. As Sabine loses her youthful energy and happiness, the bicycle appears less and less until it is abandoned.

Roffey does a very good capturing the complexity of the situation and telling the two stories — the personal one and the political one — so that while they are connected, they are not conflated or collapsed into each other. The Harwood marriage is powerfully affected by the political context, but it’s not simply a way of making a political point, and the political context takes on a life on its own and is not merely a device with which to tell the story of a marriage. And Roffey also describes the landscape of Trinidad beautifully. In fact, both George and Sabine personify that landscape and talk to it so that it becomes a kind of character in its own right.

Roffey does so much well here, and I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t have that feeling of excitement about it that I always hope for. I didn’t fall in love with it, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think I’m feeling some boredom with contemporary fiction — not all of it, but with more straightforwardly realistic contemporary novels. I suppose that while Roffey’s use of language is accomplished, it didn’t bowl me over in the way I want. But there is much to praise in this book, still, and it kept me good company while I was traveling.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

  1. It sounds like an interesting book–but I’m also interested in your lack of excitement. I wonder if you might write a post about your reactions to contemporary fiction. I’d be interested in it.

  2. bookgazing

    Hmm yes I know what you mean about that alck of excitment. I suspect that for me, while the language was wonderful it clothed this utterly predictable central theme, one I’m rather sick off (the bitter fatality of marriage – sometimes you would think there were no other topic lit fic could explore). That seems unfair, because lots of stories are predictable and I still like them, but there was some combination of predictability and some kind of lack here. I do really want to see what Roffey does next though.

  3. I’ve got this book and am very curious to read it. I rather like the controversial ones!

  4. I received a copy of this via NetGalley and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I suppose I have a particular affinity for it because my mother was born in Trinidad and lived there until she was 12, so I’ll be interested to read a book that is set there. I’ve been trying to keep my reading diverse so hopefully I won’t experience the same burn out you did.

  5. Your opinion of the book seems to be not an uncommon one as I’ve read a couple of other reviews that said the books was enjoyable but the reader didn’t fall in love with it. I understand what you mean about feeling some boredom with contemporary fiction. I’m feeling that way a bit myself which probably explains why I’ve got so many nonfiction books on request at the library.

  6. I loved this quite a lot–for me the politics and history of Trinidad overshadowed the more predictable, but reasonably well-done marriage story. But I know exactly what you mean about thinking a book is well-written but not being in love with it. I think for me that’s often a matter of timing: I’m tired of a particular kind of book, as you suggest, or I’m really craving something different.

  7. I admit that’s one area I haven’t explored… literature from Trinidad and the Caribbean. The only author that comes to mind is V. S. Naipaul. But this post has piqued my interest, particularly this Orange Prize nominee Monique Roffey. As for your reading experience, I know a bit of how that feeling is… you’re intellectually engaged but emotionally detached. I sometimes feel that way too when reading, but can’t say if this is consistent with which kind of writing though.

  8. I know what you’re saying about realistic contemporary fiction. I’m feeling that a little bit with some of the books I’m reading right now—just craving something more experimental or modernist whenever I pick up a straight realist novel. Someone doing something with language that I haven’t seen before. I like to think this is down to my intellectual sophistication, rather than some kind of super-short 21st-century attention span. :-P

  9. Lilian — I wrote your post for you!

    Bookgazing — funny, I didn’t think about the marriage plot being predictable at all. But you are right; I guess it’s a very common story line. I agree that a book can get away with being predictable if it does something else to make up for it. Austen’s plots are fairly predictable after all, but I love her!

    Litlove — sometimes I like the controversial ones as well — they are so interesting to think about. I hope you enjoy this book!

    Steph — interesting! I bet you will enjoy the book. I liked the setting very much, and it was great to learn more about the country.

    Stefanie — some good nonfiction is an excellent antidote to boredom with fiction, and we’ll probably find novels we love again soon. Interesting that some others have felt the same way I did, although people like Eva and Teresa really loved it.

    Teresa — it definitely is a matter of timing. I just wrote a post about not liking more conventional novels, but there are times when I crave only that! I agree that reading about the politics and culture of Trinidad was fascinating, and I’m glad I read the book for that reason.

    Arti — intellectually engaged but emotionally detached is an excellent way to put it. It’s very hard to try to pinpoint what causes that reaction, although I tried to do that in my last post. Roffey is a great one to read in order to explore Caribbean lit a bit further, and Eva has some excellent suggestions as well.

    Emily — oh, I’m sure it’s intellectual sophistication! :) I tried to explore the idea of craving experimental books in my latest post; for me, there has to be a balance between experiment and readability. I’m willing to try experimental books, but I’m disappointed when they turn out to be dull, which, let’s face it, they can frequently do!

  10. I have this as well (though a regular book not ebook–I’m not doing well with my ebooks I’m afraid), and am looking forward to it. I’ll be curious to see what my response will be–and I will have to see what Eva and Teresa had to say about it as well. It sounds as though it was a good vacation read in any case.

  11. Stephanie

    A friend sent me this link, and I’m really excited to read this book. Although I’m from the US, my father is Trinidadian, and won the first olympic medal for Trinidad as an independent nation in the ’64 olympics. He was a big hero at that time, so it will be interesting for me to read about what was going on in the country then. Very excited!

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