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The novel starts in the present day in around 2006 when the when the Soca Warriors were about to take part on the World Cup. Threre appears to be a lot of corruption and the police are particularly bad as they are described beating a young man almost to death because he complained about them for stealing his mobile phone ( justifiably I would have thought!) We then jump back in time to when Sabine and George arrive in Trinidad in 1956. The charismatic leader Eric Williams launches the PNM (Peoples National Movement) who are fed up with the colonial whites and he holds many rallies giving stirring speeches which inspire Sabine and also make her very aware of the racial inequality on the island. The book has two other sections 1963, when the island gained Independence and the hopes were raised only to be dashed by little change in reality for the people of the island. Finally we reach 1970 and the tension of the "Black Power" movement , riots that saw Sabine and her husband attempt to finally leave the island. Alongside the history of Trinidad we have the changes in the Harwood's life and marriage as the novel follows Sabine and her husband from the present day initially then hops back to when they first arrived in Trinidad on a two year contract as ex pats. Sabine hated Trinidad while George fell in love with the place. The novel also follows the ups and downs of their marriage, having their children and how the political changes in Trinidad affected them as expats. Having been to Trinidad as a child in the time this was set it was interesting to me. I lived in Guyana which went through a very turbulent political time while we were there so I felt the tension of Sabine while the riots were taking place. We arrived in Guyana in 1956 and left in 1964 so pretty much the same time as some of the events in the book and the history of Guyana was kind of similar too. To be honest I didn't know a lot of the politics of Trinidad so I have no idea how accurate it is but the author did live on the island so I imagine it is pretty accurate. I thought the way she portrayed Sabine's emotions was excellent and George's less so but it was told through Sabine's eyes most of the time. George certainly went through a very unlikable period and I personally would have left him had I been Sabine but she was trapped in the marriage financially and she still loved George. I thought that the way the author made our sympathies waver between Sabine and George was clever and initially I found Sabine a bit unsympathetic but towards the end I wonder how she stayed with George. I found it quite an uncomfortable read at times but I did enjoy the accents of the Trinidadian and could hear that Caribbean sing song accent while I was reading. I liked both Venus and Jennifer and the way their dialogue was written meant I could hear them speak in the accent I grew up with in the Caribbean. I loved the way they ?streupsed' . this is a niose made by sucking your teeth with your tongue. We used to call it sucking teeth ? ?You na suck ya teet at me man' was the saying we often heard shouted at someone. I thought the writing was good but found that at times the story was a bit slow. It kind of wandered along and nothing really made the story come alive. There were a lot of horrific events and activities but it sort of just carried on. Even the end was a bit meah to me.I can't comment on the politics or events. I am not sure that the relationship between Sabine and her servants was likely to have been as close as it was portrayed in the book and the racial tensions and racist conversations in the ?Club' were probably quite accurate as it was pretty segregated at that time. I am not saying it was right but that it was probably an accurate portrayal feelings at the time. I thought Trinidad and the natural surroundings were described and captured well and I could picture their garden with the pool and the hills in the background. Their trip to Pitch lake too brought back childhood memories for me. I did quite enjoy the book and found it interesting but at times quite disturbing at other times. It was shortlisted for the Orange Book prize but was not a winner. I can see why it was nominated as it was interesting and the writing good but to me it lacked a real story. I wasn't happy with the ending and it kind of petered out for me which was disappointing after quite a long read.
In 1956, newlyweds George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England. George instantly falls in love with Trinidad - often hinted as "other woman" (and sometimes there are Trinidadian women that he has affairs with) and although Sabine vowed she would stick out their three years there, she quickly becomes isolated and ill at ease with many aspects of her new life.
Many years pass and now in their seventies, George and Sabine have remained in Trinidad - at the cost of their marriage which has declined rapidly over the years. When George discovers a bunch of letters that Sabine wrote to Eric Williams, the charming leader of Trinidads new national party back when racial segregation was at its peak, he realises that their life in Trinidad and their marriage has been based on many secrets. Desperate to prove his love for her, George is on a mission to get his wife to love him again, with tragic consequences...
Much like "Black Rock" by Amanda Smyth which had already given me food for thought on a darker side to this Carribbean island during this period, this book was another refreshing read which portrays the Carribbean in a different light than how most without experience of living in such a place as Trinidad expect. Gone are the exotic images of smiling friendly Carribbean people and tropical, balmy beaches, this book portays a totally different type of environment, brooding, dangerous and literally brimming with racial hatred and segregation during the 50's, 60's and 70's. The author, born Trinidadian but educated in the UK, has the perfect insight and is able to accurately portray the feelings and emotions of the family in this book.
"The White Woman On The Green Bicycle" (from now on called TWWOTGB!) is sectioned into three important periods of history in Trinidad. The story is introduced at its most recent point, 2006, the year when the Soca Warriors were getting ready to take on the world at the World Cup. Set against this is the opening lines which goes into much gory detail about how the corrupt and powerhungry police of Trinidad beat up a young man after he complained that his mobile phone was stolen by a policeman.
The half way point in the book sees us taken back to 1956, the year that the Harwoods arrived in Trinidad and is also the year that Eric Williams launches the PNM (Peoples National Movement) which is an integral part of the book, giving voice to the nations unrest and unhappiness with whites presence in Trinidad amonst other things.
The other two sections of the book are during 1963, the afterglow of independence and the disappointment that followed and then in 1970 during "Black Power" and a rebellion caused by all the promises that the PNM never fulfilled for its people.
As mentioned, all of these sections have particular relvance in the islands history as well as for the development of the Harwoods story. It was very interesting for me to read about the revolts in Trinidad and the reaction to white presence, and also see the point of view of those white Europeans who were over there at the time. One point in the story struck a particular chord with me which seems to sum up how the islanders viewed white European settlers during the 50's and 60's. During an interview with George Harwood, Patrick Manning states "We've all seen your type. White man in the West Indies. Second-rate, eh? Never management material in the UK. Stayed here too long eh? Too long in the sun. Drank too much rum. Came here years ago to build and take. Take, take, Take... You are the past and you can stick your critique of my government, elected by the people, for the people, up your pathetic white arse." (p166).
This should give you a very good indication of what the underlying issues are in this book, and I enjoyed working through the history of Trinidad. Even better, was starting in 2006 - at first, I didn't like it; the way in which George and Sabine's life in Trinidad was set into a pattern and also how they were coming to the later years in their life. So much was hinted at and I came to really dislike Sabine and feel real sympathy for George - the discovery of the letters, his wifes total indifference with him and infactuation with her son and the way he tried so hard to please her. However, I now recognise this as a very clever ploy indeed! Once the book returns to their arrival, it is then that we see Sabines side of the story and how their relationship really did work. I don't want to spoil anyone elses enjoyment, but I felt that the author, Monique Roffey, was very clever in how she managed to tell the story in one way but then really flip it on its head when looking at it from a different character.
However, I must stress that I at times found this a book that was very difficult to read. I very much enjoyed how the Trinidadian characters in the story, for instance, Jennifer and Venus came to life, Roffey has written their dialogue in the way in which they would speak - for the most part, this was interesting and I could see the characters speaking In this way, but it did at times require a little more concentration to understand what they were saying.
In addition, although I felt that the overall story was very interesting, giving a good background to the history and life of Trinidadians as well as telling the story of the Harwoods life there, it was told at a pace that was far too slow. The story for me never really built up any kind of momentum; there is no high point to the story (further hindered by the jumping of time frames) and by the time I realised that there was no real climax, I had almost finished the book. I found it difficult to pick up - a sure sign that Im struggling to really get "in" to the story itself. Although I enjoyed reading about the characters, and my opinion of Sabine changed frequently, I still didn't particularly care for her, in fact I felt frustrated by her lack of motivation at times, to change a situation she was unhappy in.
What I will say in favour of this book is how vivid it appears. Usually books set in tropical climates seem to have a brightness about them - not this story with all its brooding hatred. However, I felt that the Trinidadian characters in particular came alive, their speech, their phyiscal descriptions and their actions I could see clearly in my mind. I was introduced to a new word which was mentioned several times in the first couple of chapters: "Steupsed" which is "trini slang" for the noise the islanders make when they disapprove or are annoyed about something - kissing their teeth. I could picture it all perfectly!
There is some fantastic imagery in the book describing the iguanas in the trees, the birds and even the ramshackle houses that I couldn't help but feel impressed with.
Overall this is an impressive choice, and I can see why it was shortlisted for the Orange prize. However it fails because of the lack of direction, meandering along at a very slow and heavy pace. It is quite a hefty book too, so could've done with some severe editing - perhaps it might've even won the award if this was the case!