“It’s a woman’s curse to love bad and foolish men, even when they fuck up miserably.”
So says Sabine Harwood, the white woman of the title in Monique Roffey’s exciting political-historical novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Her curt words sum up her decades-long experiences in post-colonial Trinidad, the setting of the novel.
Sabine and her husband George arrive in Trinidad, newly married and very much in love, in 1956 at the tail end of British colonial rule and the dawn of Trinidad’s Peoples’ National Movement, a grassroots political movement stressing independence and self-determination and led by a charismatic young iconoclast, Dr. Eric Williams. Sabine is immediately disenchanted with Trinidad – the heat, the rawness, the shameful history of racial oppression – but is just as immediately enchanted and charmed by the dashing Williams. She hears him speak, watches him move his masses of followers with his words and she is inspired to begin writing him a series of intimate letters she keeps completely secret from her husband.
Centuries of British rule have created layers of privilege and the opportunity for whites to exploit the native people and resources of Trinidad. George embraces his privileged position and begins using it for his own gain. Sabine grows to resent him for perpetuating the inequality she cannot tolerate and focuses on Eric Williams as the antithesis of her colonialist husband. Williams is lauded as the father of the country (followers call him Papa) and he embodies a hope and a promise of a better future for Trinidad’s black population. The historical facts of the novel are accurate and well-documented , so I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that Williams disappoints Sabine – and the Trinidadian people – when he fails to live up to his revolutionary promises and, instead, settles into the structures of privilege abandoned by the British. He abandons nothing and ends up, in behavior, the twin of Sabine’s husband George, not the antithesis she had imagined he would be, and, therefore, just another fuck-up. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
To say that Sabine is an idealistic character is to severely understate the facts. Perhaps she is all-to-human and makes the mistake of believing people will do exactly what they say they will do. When they fail her, she is quick to condemn them. I found her quite a bit slower and less harsh in turning that judgmental eye on herself. Though I would argue that if inaction in the face of inequality is the sin for which Sabine is quick to condemn, she is equally deserving of condemnation. It is not until the very end of the story that Sabine does much more than complain about conditions and corruption in Trinidad and finally takes action herself. When she does act, her actions are significant and dramatic, though you’ll have to read the novel yourself to determine whether you think they will be effective at bringing about the change she desires. Suffice to say that, agree or disagree with her, you will be effected by Sabine – her actions and attitudes will lead you to question your own attitudes about the issues at play in the novel – and that is a primary pleasure of reading this novel.
Cleverly structured, the book covers fifty years in the lives of its characters, but not in a straight line: it begins at the end, middles in the beginning and ends in the middle (opens in 2006, middles in 1956, ends in the 1970s). It is, despite the political tensions driving the plot, a tragic love story. Beginning the book by showing us the end outcomes for its characters lends a deeper poignancy to the latter half of the book when we see the characters at an earlier time full of hope and untrammeled idealism. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is an exciting, passion-inducing, deeply engaging book. After reading it, you may be moved to learn about the post-colonial history in Trinidad. I certainly was, and found that the country presents complexities that far surpass its physical size and are still far from resolved.
In a 2010 interview, Roffey revealed that the Trinidad Tourist Board wants nothing to do with her book. That’s a shame, as I found that, in addition to feeling for and pulling for Sabine and George and the other characters in the book, I finished the book, like Sabine, pulling for Trinidad too. The country has badness in it, though it is not bad. It has foolishness in it, though it is not foolish; it has fucked up miserably at times (as many countries have), but as we both witness and experience while reading this novel, it nonetheless inspires deep love.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
By Monique Roffey
Penguin Books, 2011