Did I really read The White Woman on the Green Bicycle way back in 2010? It's strange how time disappears between some books and the present. It was Monique Roffey's second novel - hot, humid, politically charged and shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I liked it very much, and have been anticipating reading her follow-up Archipelago (Simon & Schuster, 2012) all summer.
(At which point I should note that the publisher did send me a review copy, but it arrived after I had started reading a bought hardback copy!)
Roffey takes us back to the Trinidad of Green Bicycle, and into the life of middle-aged, middle-income Gavin Weald and his six year old daughter Océan. Like George and Sabine Harwood, they live at the foot of 'the green woman of Trinidad', 'those green hills...curled up and close, like a colossus asleep on her side.' We meet them on a humid day in November 2010, eating macaroni cheese and ice cream with peas for dinner. They're joined at this meal by Suzy, the robust grumbling family dog, and afterwards all three huddle together on a dirty double bed to watch TV. Océan's mother is an ominous absence; later we learn that a second child, a baby boy, is also missing. Some natural disaster is hinted at - a flood, a landslide - that has permanently destroyed the family's happiness.
Gavin is in a sorry state. He hides away in his office at work and falls asleep standing up in toilet cubicles. All the skin is falling off his hands. He has woken up after a tragedy to find that he is alone, old and fat; and that he has lost sight of what life is for. His daughter is fragile with grief, and breaks down into hysterical fits whenever it rains (which is quite often in the rainy season in Trinidad). His dog is also old and fat, and he no longer sure if 'he needs or loves' her.
He didn't become the man he wanted to be. When he was younger he was more himself... Now he is a fat man who married a nice girl and got a good job and had two kids and worked hard and then got his fucking house knocked down in a flood which poured down the hill.
It is a sorry tale of 21st century discontentment compounded by grief. One hell of a mid-life crisis. He recognises that he has to do something - move on, snap out of it, man up - but what and how?
Salvation comes in the form of the Romany, the old Danish sailing boat of his younger days. He will run away; away from work and family and the green hills. Océan and Suzy in tow, he stocks the hold, chucks his mobile phone in the sea and sets sail on a cruise around the archipelagos of the Carribean. Ahead of him is the wide, seductive ocean. At the back of his mind is a nagging dream of his youth, to sail the Romany all the way to the Galapagos.
It reminds me very much of the premise of a children's story. Family trauma: check. Setting out on a redemptive adventure: check. Taking along family pet: check. The scale is bigger and more exotic - this is the Carribean, not Enid Blyton country; and it's the sea, not a lake - but still, there is the same hunger for transformation at the bottom of Gavin's escape from his everyday life. It reminds me of Swallows and Amazons or the Famous Five. The familiarity of the premise is almost comforting. Like those great adventure stories of childhood, Archipelago makes me want to go on an adventure too.
Gavin and his daughter explore the islands of the Carribean through the eyes of tourists and voyeurs who are simultaneously at home and native. Roffey is hard on the 'real' tourists of the book, the Americans and Europeans arriving on their cruise ships 'with surgical scars on both knees', chewing up the Carribean by visiting 8 ports in 10 days. But Gavin and Océan escape this judgement because this is partly their own world, their own place. Subtly Roffey explores the history of the islands through them. Layers of colonisation and settlement, both actual and psychological, are peeled back: first, the Spanish, then the Dutch, who brought over slaves from Africa; then the Americans and, perhaps, in the future, the Venezualans led by Hugo Chavez. Strange to imagine them sitting in a Taco Bell on Aruba, listening to fellow patrons speak a mixture of Dutch and Papiamento, a language developed by slaves and spoken on only three Carribean islands. Strange also to find them watching young black men break-dancing to hip-hop on the streets of Curacao, in a street of Dutch gabled houses strung with neon Christmas lights in the baking hot sun. Roffey writes beautifully about these places and their landscapes; it's not surprising to learn from the Acknowledgements that she has sailed in Gavin and Océan's footsteps herself.
The sea is the dominant landscape of the book. The islands in the text are like the islands in the sea: only temporary respites from the overwhelming presence of the water. For long stretches the only characters in the book are Gavin and the sea. He has turned to it in search of something, although he isn't clear what. Wisdom, forgiveness, the presence of God, a hard slap in the face? He has a romantic attachment to it, a fantasy of his own connection to it, that is partly nostalgia for his youth and partly a yearning towards a Higher Power. It is one of the reasons he called his daughter after it. Water has destroyed his family, but it seems natural to him to return to the water to repair it. But no sooner has he discovered an equilibrium, no sooner does he feel confident, a 'sailor man' again, than he is betrayed once more by the waves. The book is the chronicle of his violent see-sawing confusion: Is nature good, profound and meaningful, or is it ruthless, cruel and destructive?
Roffey invokes the shade of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab's vendetta against the White Whale to explore this theme throughout. She has Gavin explain to precocious Océan that the moral of the story is that Ahab wrongly blamed the White Whale for attacking him. He made it personal when, in fact, nature is not personal. Starbuck understood that taking revenge was pointless, because there was no conscious wrong to direct the revenge against. Gavin's family has also been hurt by a disaster in nature, by heavy rain which is blameless, so how should be resolve his anger about it? He isn't like Ahab; he consciously avoids making that mistake. But instead of seeking revenge he looks for meaning, for a mystery in the sea, the water. This, Roffey seems to say, is as misguided and perverse as attacking it. Archipelago is Gavin's therapuetic journey. Not in a Paulo Coelho sense; he doesn't have to travel in order to come back to himself in peace. Instead the journey is about disrupting his notions of what peace and love and nature are; it's about getting over the search for meaning rather than making meaning.
The sea is massive and there is a sense of its grand entitlement. The sea owns 70 per cent of the world... It owes them nothing. Gavin feels this keenly, for the first time in his life. Now he is aware that the sea isn't interested in him - and yet he's fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomably moods in him. The sea doesn't care, cannot card, not one jot, for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they've been held mesmerised... It's as if he is floating on a giant mirror and the sea's purpose is only to reflect himself back. Who the fuck is he, after all?
From this thematic point of view I think the novel is successful; and the development of the sense of place and time and character is very successful. There are some bumps in the telling though. It is true that the plot is very A-B, with neatly lined up dangers and hurdles along the way. They are all things you would expect - storms, pirates, drugs trafficking, wild animals - and there is nothing to put the journey off course. Some of the descriptive passages a little loose and hackneyed. At one point the sea is Gavin's 'mistress' and I groaned outloud. It's probably inevitable that if you describe the sea every other line you're going to loose some originality. And there was something else, an inevitability to the novel which I found disappointing. It didn't have the shock and thrust of Green Bicycle, or that feeling of revelation. So: clever and enjoyable and recommended, but not quite equal to its predecessor.
*Some readers might have noticed that this is my first post in quite some time. I have been struggling with my reading and also struggling to rediscover my own enjoyment in blogging. It was a long dark mood, hopefully now passing. I've been writing at Alexandria for nearly 7 years now, which is a long time, and I think I had lost sight of what it was I was going it for. I'm dipping a tentative toe back in the water.