The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

white woman on the green bicycleI had mixed feelings about Monique Roffey’s novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. It spans about fifty years, and tells the political history of Trinidad through the ups and downs of the relationship between a white expatriate couple, George and Sabine, who came to the island in the 1950s expecting to be there for a three-year appointment — and never left. The first half of the book is written in omniscient third person, and tells the end of the story: George, who loves Trinidad, has become a journalist specializing in the “big” interview, and he gets caught up, blustering and wielding power he doesn’t have, in trying to tell the story of the brutal beating of his housekeeper’s son. Sabine has never liked Trinidad: the heat, the insects, the racial inequality, the sense that she’s not wanted as a white person on the island. But George, deliberately oblivious and happy with his mediocrity, has refused to take Sabine and their children back to England. Here they all are: trapped in what Trinidad has made of them.

The second half of the book is told from Sabine’s point of view. Perhaps as a response to her own powerlessness and voicelessness, Sabine becomes deeply interested in the postcolonial political movement on Trinidad. Sabine’s interest, like George’s “interviews,” functions as a kind of newsreel of Trinidad’s history. We see real-life figures like former Prime Minister Patrick Manning, the calypso king the Mighty Sparrow, the Soca Warriors (when Trinidad qualified for the FIFA World Cup) and great cricketer Brian Lara through their heat-wavering eyes. Most of all, we see the powerful, enigmatic “father of a nation,” Eric Williams. Sabine, like so many others on that island, is deeply drawn to Williams: his ideas and ideals, his “University of Woodford Square” where he preaches that colonialism was finished in his country, his charisma, his new political party. And she is also repelled, understanding that this movement is not at all for her or about her, and may not even leave her safe. Sabine is torn. She understands some of her complicity in the poverty and social problems of Trinidad:

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.

But she continues to take part in all those systems, nonetheless: the Country Club with the color bar, the house where she has running water but her servants up the hill do not. She’s fascinated by Eric Williams and writes him hundreds of letters telling him what he should do, but she only sends one. Is this the action of someone who truly desires change? I wonder.

This book’s language is rich with description and dialect: it speaks and sings and shimmies. But the character complexity leaves something to be desired. George and Sabine’s servants, Venus and Lucy, never reveal themselves very far; they are a mystery to the very end. Why? Because they’re Trinidadian? Because they’re poor? Because of the language barrier, or the things they know that Sabine doesn’t? George and Sabine themselves represent the opposing postcolonial sentiments of greed and guilt, wrapped around each other in a profoundly sexual relationship without much mutual understanding. Sabine is left with her confusion and resentment, and a life spent in service of something she neither desires nor deserves.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, her long essay about Antigua’s British colonial legacy. Having read that made it feel strange (though no less “authentic” in its own way) to see Trinidad through the eyes of George and Sabine. I want a sequel to this book, with the same title, written in the voices of Venus and Lucy. Then we might get some answers to some of this complicated book’s complicated questions, spoken and unspoken.

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4 Responses to The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

  1. lailaarch says:

    This sounds interesting – reading your review reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, which I read earlier this year and really enjoyed. Also set on a Caribbean island, also white people (a wife who doesn’t want to be there) with black servants. But it is a lot more intimate in focus than this novel sounds. I might have to look this one up.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read a lot of Toni Morrison, but not Tar Baby. Maybe I’ll make that one my next one of hers — I like the idea of following book to book about the Caribbean. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Teresa says:

    I read this before I read A Small Place, and the relationship between the two books interested me, too. As much as I’d like to read a similar story from the point of view of the servants, I appreciated the way Roffey addressed the complex intertwining of power and powerlessness that Sabine felt.

    • Jenny says:

      I did, too. She was much the most complex character in the story, and while at first it felt odd to me to see a Caribbean island from the POV of white people, I adjusted quickly (because of course in a creole country it is their story too!) and liked the way Roffey approached it. I suppose I do feel that the story is incomplete in a creole country without more voices — indigenous voices, mixed-race voices, etc. That might have been an interesting way to come at it, too.

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