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White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey (thoughts)

June 23, 2011

I first heard of this when several of my favourite British bloggers raved about it last year. While I was patiently waiting for it to make its way across the Atlantic, I was delighted to see it show up on Netgalley! Due to a flare up, it took me longer than I expected to start it, but as soon as I opened it I was enthralled. In fact, the pages seemed to fly by, and while I can see how some of Roffey’s choices won’t work for every reader, I have nothing but gushing praise for every single one of them. I could always feel the intense amount of concentration and deliberation Roffey put into her writing, and she completely won me over: on an intellectual level and on an emotional one. (On a brief sidenote, this is the first white Caribbean author I’ve read, and I was a bit nervous, but I thought the racial aspects were handled marvelously. And that’s from someone who spends a lot of time thinking and reading about racial stuff, and is deeply troubled by a lot of racial aspects of publishing today. Although I’m white, of course and not Caribbean.)

But let’s back up a bit: one of the most notable features of the novel is its structure. The first part is told in a shifting limited third person and is set in the present day: we meet a septugenarian couple, George and Sabine, who came over right before Trinidadian independence and have never left. Both of them have a lot of disappointment, both with themselves, their marriage, and their adopted homeland. In response, George conducts ‘fluffy’ interviews for a newspaper, while Sabine has simply withdrawn into herself; when their black housekeeper’s son is beat up by the police, both receive a radical wake up call. This part lasts about two hundred pages, and could stand as its own novella. But then, after the plot’s climax, Roffey shifts us back in time to George and Sabine’s arrival in the 50s; at the same time, the narrative shifts to first person, entirely focused on Sabine. Whereas in the first part, we see Sabine primarily through others’ eyes, suddenly we’re privy to her personal experiences and thoughts. I love this: I think it’s a brilliant metaphor for Trinidad itself, which as a colony was seen through the ‘third person’ eyes of the West and was only able to gain its own voice, and share its own point of view, after a cataclysmic event prompts independence. Also, Roffey is such a strong writer that although I inevitably knew how the final part of Sabine’s story must end (after all, she’s still on the island decades later), my heart was racing to see how the second plot climax would play out. That’s how deeply Roffey had me believing in Sabine and her story; limited to the perspective of her younger self, I forgot about anything else.

All of the characters were sharply drawn; even the minor ones were memorable. And the setting is perfect: Trinidad’s steamy lushness seemed to rise out of the pages. Roffey’s prose is so rich, it was a delight to read, and as I mentioned earlier it flowed smoothly; although the book’s ideas are dense, it’s a ‘quick’ read in that the writing keeps you flipping pages. The combination of such masterful fiction writing with such a sharp insight into political, racial, and gender issues made this a dream book for me. If it weren’t for my pain, I would easily be writing a three thousand word post and just begin to skim the surface of all this novel has to offer. Just writing about it makes me want to reread it! I started reading Caribbean lit a couple of years ago, and so far I’ve loved every author I’ve tried. Due to that, and all of the good reviews I read last year, I went into this with incredibly high expectations; White Woman on the Green Bicycle met and exceeded every one of them. If you like smart, challenging, compelling fiction, this is a must. It was an epic reading experience for me, and now I’m trying to track down a copy of Sun Dog, her debut!

Suggested Companion Reads (linked to my thoughts)

25 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2011 7:51 am

    I’ve heard lots of good comments on this one and it sounds fantastic when you describe it, too. I could do with an atmospheric read right now and all the lushness of this one is very tempting.

    Great review, Eva!

    • June 23, 2011 3:22 pm

      Hmmm…it’s not atmospheric in a ‘gothic’ way, but it has a v strong sense of place. And I definitely kept turning the pages to find out what happened! :)

  2. June 23, 2011 7:57 am

    ” completely won me over: on an intellectual level and on an emotional one” is about as strong a recommendation as you can make – thanks for helping me add this to my list, Eva.

  3. June 23, 2011 9:48 am

    I’ve just got this on NetGalley as well and was looking forward to starting it. Now with your recommendation I am VERY eager to begin! I think it sounds marvellous.

  4. June 23, 2011 9:53 am

    I am SO glad to hear you rave about this book! I have a NetGalley copy that I need to crack open, but I have been waiting for the right time. I’m particularly interested in this book because it is set in Trinidad, which is where my mom was born and spent the first 12 years of her life, so I feel like in many ways this novel will be special for me. I’ve read a few middling reviews of it, so I was a bit apprehensive, but now my enthusiasm is renewed! I’m bumping it up the queue asap!

    • June 23, 2011 3:23 pm

      I was a bit nervous after some neg stuff I saw on Twitter, but I was completely captivated by page one. I hope your reaction is more like mine than other bloggers! The good thing is, you should know pretty soon, so it’d be easy to abandon. ;) (Also, have you read Shani Mootoo yet? You should, if you’re interested in Trinidad!)

  5. June 23, 2011 11:32 am

    I’m moving this one to the top of my list, and thanks for the list of companion reads, there are some I’ve never heard of.

    • June 23, 2011 3:23 pm

      I had fun putting the list tog: had to cut myself off actually! hehe I’ve really become a huge fan of Caribbean lit. :D

  6. June 23, 2011 1:02 pm

    I really loved this book and agree with most of what you say here (great write-up, by the way) but still really didn’t like the structure.

    However, as I mention in my review, this was a small part in a book that fascinated me. I thought it was such an interesting and realistic portrait of a marriage and a love of place and of feeling/knowing you are an outsider.

    And you’re right about the other characters – the Sparrow was one of my favorites.

    • June 23, 2011 3:24 pm

      I completely understand why others wouldn’t like the structure! I’m glad you liked my post, and the minor characters were so awesome. I really loved Pascale; every time she talked I giggled.

  7. June 23, 2011 1:06 pm

    And if anyone ends up reading A Small Place also be sure to watch the 2001 documentary Life and Debt. The film makers actually incorporated some of the book’s material into the movie

  8. June 23, 2011 1:35 pm

    I have not read this book, but absolutely LOVED Sun Dog. Its so gentle and quiet but full of beautiful writing, I do hope you enjoy it!

    • June 23, 2011 3:25 pm

      Oh yay! I’ve had to put an ILL request in, since my library’s copy was lost. :(

  9. June 23, 2011 5:06 pm

    I really haven’t gotten into Caribbean lit at all, but I really should and this looks like a great place to start. :) Thanks!

  10. June 23, 2011 5:40 pm

    I liked this book an awful lot, and my affection for it has gotten even stronger as I’ve gotten some distance from it. It’s really a wonderful book. I read A Small Place not long after reading this, and the two books make wonderful companions.

  11. June 23, 2011 8:09 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this one every since I saw that it was longlisted for the Orange prize. It sounds like an interesting book…thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

  12. June 23, 2011 8:13 pm

    This was one of my favourite reads of 2010: I think what she accomplishes is fantastic. And those opening pages: wow. Great style. Glad you enjoyed it too!

  13. June 24, 2011 1:28 am

    I thought about requesting this one from Netgalley but ended up deciding against it. Wish I hadn’t now!

  14. June 24, 2011 8:07 am

    Interesting review Eva. I’ve read some good and some really bad things about this book I have to admit. I LOVE that you have Danticat on your companion reads list because she is truly fantastic. Also, thanks for reminding me to read Shani Mootoo already :)

    • June 24, 2011 1:00 pm

      I’ve seen some mixed reviews too; I’m not sure if you’d love this one the way I do. But if you do read it, I’m curious to see what you’ll think!

  15. June 24, 2011 10:31 am

    I’m so, so glad you enjoyed it. It was certainly one of my reads of last year, and such a surprise. When it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize I was sceptical, but the book completely won me over.

    Monique Roffey has a new book out over here at the moment, a memoir of her ‘sexual odyssey’ of middle age called ‘Kisses of his Mouth’. I’m interested to read it.

    • June 24, 2011 1:00 pm

      I’ll wait to see your post on her memoir; it would definitely be a departure from my usual reading!

  16. June 25, 2011 9:51 am

    What was the negative stuff you heard about the book? My main concern with this one was that the racial aspects would make me uncomfortable, so I’m glad to hear that you thought they worked.

  17. June 25, 2011 6:16 pm

    Your review has got me very curious to try this one. I actually have it on my reading list for next month. One of my friends was persuading me to read this one asap.


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