Sabine Harwood has never much liked living in Trinidad. It’s hot, and it’s confusing. She agreed to come with her husband, George, because she thought it would be for only three years. But George has refused to return to England, so now, 50 years later, Trinidad remains their home. When Monique Roffey’s novel begins, it’s 2006, and Sabine has made something of a life in Trinidad, but she’s never come to love it. It’s her husband’s mistress, and the hills are the body of a woman who taunts Sabine. George has had other mistresses too, but it’s the island that has come between them. And its history of racial injustice has become inescapable.
Written in the third person, the first third or so of the novel paints a detailed picture of Sabine and George’s life in 2006 Trinidad. Roffey parcels out bits of information on their past marital conflicts, the island’s political unrest, and missed opportunities to move back to England. The situation is not good, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Just how long can it stay this way? Will Sabine’s life continue to be one of quiet desperation, or will some explosion force a change?
After we see where Sabine and George’s lives will end up, Roffey returns to the beginning, to 1956. Sabine then tells the story of her arrival in Trinidad. Knowing where things will end up makes this something other than a typical fish out of water story. We know Sabine won’t grow to love the island. What we don’t know is precisely what prevents her from ever feeling at home. I love books that tell stories backwards. Unlike Jenny, I hardly ever read the end ahead of time, but I still find the question of why and how something happened far more interesting than the question of what happened.
I know nothing of Trinidad or of its politics, but I found Roffey’s depiction of the island fascinating. Roffey herself was born in Trinidad, and her mother, like Sabine, used to ride around Trinidad on a green bicycle. Her descriptions allow readers to feel the heat, as well as the tension between the British colonial government and the burgeoning movement for independence, led by Eric Williams, an Oxford-educated intellectual. Independence doesn’t resolve the tensions; it just changes them. The situation is complex—both thrilling and frightening—and Sabine doesn’t know what to make of it.
Roffey makes the brave choice of letting Sabine live in the complexity, instead of taking a side. She believes in equality between the races and even becomes entranced with Williams when she hears him speak against the white colonial powers. She’s happy to see him gain power and hopes that he’ll bring a better life to the people of Trinidad. But her beliefs in freedom and equality don’t stop her from continuing to go to her all-white country club, where she feels safe. And when reading about how she is harassed and threatened during Carnival simply for being white, I can hardly blame her for her fears.
As Sabine grows to know Trinidad better, she realizes just how deep-seated the problems are. It’s not just a matter of becoming independent. A whole new way of doing things is needed. Independence won’t necessarily bring running water to the homes of the poor. It won’t end corruption or stop abuses of power. Sabine expresses her frustration in a series of letters she writes to Williams (but doesn’t mail). She criticizes him for not truly breaking free of the old ways:
A national inheritance? You’ve lost the plot. You are overwhelmed and overturned. You are indentured. You are enslaved. You are colonial. You are stuck in the revolving door of all these past methods. All men are born equally stupid and greedy.
She has hard words for Williams, but even harder words for her own people:
I was white. White in a country where this was to be implicated, complicated, and, whatever way I tried to square it, guilty. Genocide. Slavery. Indenture. Colonialism—big words which were linked to crimes so hideous no manner of punishment was adequate.
These crimes are so hideous that they infect everything. Sabine and George’s marriage, George’s career, Sabine and George’s relationships with their children and their neighbors—nothing is untouched. There are moments of transport, points where you almost believe that something better will come. The fact that the painful end is revealed ahead of time makes those moments all the more difficult to take. But to make this story anything but a difficult one would feel dishonest. I prefer honesty.
This was one of those books I felt I HAD to have when it came out, and yet I still haven’t got around to reading it. I do want to, though, and your lovely review reminds me I must pick it up very soon.
Well, at least we know books don’t expire ;)
I promptly secured a copy of this on NetGalley because as someone of Trinidadian heritage, I am woefully uninformed about the country and its history and so it seemed like this was a necessary book for me. I am so glad to hear you found it so informative and rewarding! I hope I have a similar experience with it.
I thought it did a great job digging into the last 50 years. I’d be curious what people with more knowledge of the area think.
It’s funny you should post on this right now, because I was just putting together a Caribbean Lit reading list in a fit of excitement about a possible trip to St. John in 2013. The combination of marital strife and institutionalized racism sounds heavy, but it also sounds like both are well-handled in this case. Onto the list it goes! :-)
Sounds like fate to me! Andrea Levy might be another author to look into. (To be honest, she may be the only other Caribbean author I’ve read, but I loved Small Island, and I hear good things about The Long Song.)
I just finished up an Intro to Caribbean Literature course and this was one of the last books we read on the syllabus – I LOVED it! I was fascinated by the concept of an almost opposite fish-out-of-water story, where the fish continues to stay out of the water. I also think that the metaphor you make of the land being a mistress to George is a wonderful way of describing some of the tensions between Sabine and George. I didn’t know much about Trinidad or the politics of the region (specifically, although the course did kind of do a general overview of the history of the Caribbean) before I read this book, but since I’m tempted to go on a wikipedia frenzy to find out all I can! A great book and a great review!
So glad to hear you loved it too–and to hear that it made it onto a course syllabus when it’s so new. I did spend a little time on Wikipedia reading up on Eric Williams et al. after reading. I love books that entertain and teach and move me all at once, and this is definitely one of those.
This sounds really good and I have never read a book set in Trinidad before. Onto the TBR list it goes!
I don’t think I’d read anything set in Trinidad before this book either. It’s a good place to start!
I’ve had this book on my wishlist for a long long time. I’ve heard/read such amazing things about it, and I haven’t read any book set in the Caribbean yet. Glad you enjoyed it, and hopefully, if/when I read it, I’ll feel equally rewarding.
On the comment above: I really didn’t enjoy Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. I thought it trivialised the situation and was just – not deep enough. I abandoned it mid-way, unfortunately. I’ve heard that Small Island is better, so perhaps I should give that a shot?
I really did enjoy it, and I hope you do too! And thanks for the input on The Long Song. I do want to give it a try sometime because I loved Small Island so much, but I’ll adjust my expectations. And if you’re at all interested in WWII and enjoy books with multiple perspectives, I definitely recommend it.
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