Country Focus: Trinidad and Tobago
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
By Monique Roffey
Originally published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2009.
My edition: Penguin, 2011.
Acclaim: Orange Prize Finalist
Time period: 2006, 1956, 1963, 1970
To make a long story short: George and Sabine Harwood arrived on Trinidad in 1956. George had enthusiastically signed a three-year contract with a British shipping company. Sabine planned to make the best of Trinidad until they could return to England and resume a normal life.
Upon arrival George becomes intoxicated with the island’s lushness, its women, its rum. In his later years, he writes feel-good pieces for the local newspaper even though crime plagues Trinidad and police roam the streets with impunity.
Sabine is less sanguine about Trinidad’s landscape and hurt by the rebuffs she receives from the locals. She regularly rides her green bicycle through the capital to stave off boredom. By chance, she dead-ends into a political rally led by the charismatic Eric Williams. The words of the future Prime Minister shock and intrigue Sabine. George had not told her that in a few years’ time Britain would give Trinidad its independence and that colonials – like she and George – were unwanted.
Sabine begins to obsessively collect new articles about Williams and writes hundreds of unmailed letters to him in which she spills her heart out about her troubles with George and the troubles brewing on Trinidad.
Three years turn into five decades, two grown children and a once passionate marriage and a promising new country gone sour. Then George finds Sabine’s letters and vows to win back her love by taking on Trinidad’s corrupt government.
Eric Williams spoke with clarity and confidence. His party, sitting behind him, were mixed in race. One was even a woman, bookish-looking in her horn-rimmed spectacles, her skin light brown. What was going on in Trinidad? George, my friends at the Country Club, had never mentioned this Dr. Williams.
People around me started to notice my presence.
“Go away, white girl,” a man rasped.
“Massa here,” another shouted.
I edged the bike through a thinner part of the crowd, towards the next street, mounting quickly.
I pedaled fast, down to the dock. Everywhere the streets were deserted. The whole of town was in Woodford Square, listening to this messiah, his ideas for the future of Trinidad. Eric Williams’ words rang in my ears. Repudiate imperialism, colonialism. I felt like I was new, like I had been shaken.
The armchair travel experience: Monique Roffey evokes the island most effectively in the lilting dialect the locals speak. She introduced me to a new word, steupse, that means to suck on your teeth when upset, a common Trinidadian habit. Three famous Trinidadians figure prominently in the novel: Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago; The Mighty Sparrow, a renowned Calypso singer, songwriter and musician; and Brian Lara, one of the world’s best cricket players. Roffey lights into the British Colonials’ racism and native Trinidadians’ lackadaisical and corrupt leadership with equal contempt.
The author’s relationship to Trinidad:Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She made six trips to Trinidad while writing The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, and was inspired by her mother’s reminiscences about riding around the island on her green Raleigh. Roffey witnessed firsthand the Soca Warriors qualifying for the FIFA World Cup and the ominous blimp floating overhead.
My opinion: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle‘s dialog shines. The opening violent scene is aurally visceral; Roffey uses comic book words “badap!” and “crunch!” in conjunction with lyrical patois like “He go dead.”
The Harwoods reminded me of the Wheelers in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road – the seemingly perfect couple whose union is undermined by a country (the promise of Paris in Revolutionary Road and the reality of Trinidad in Green Bicycle). The Harwoods’ marriage and Trinidad’s countryhood follow parallel lines of self-destruction. To me, the promise that Eric Williams broke to Trinidad was far more tragic than the downward spiral of George’s and Sabine’s relationship.
In my book (or what Trinidad and Tobago mean to me and maybe you, too)
How low can you go?
Hear “Limbo Rock” being played and you know that somewhere nearby inflexible party goers are trying to parenthesize their bodies under a too low horizontal pole. The limbo (a derivation of the word limber) originated in Trinidad in the 1950s. There’s something about Chubby Checker’s hypnotically catchy song combined with the silliness of the attempts that makes “doing the limbo” inevitable for every American, me included.