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on 27 April 2010
It came as no surprise to me to hear Monique Roffey had been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for her novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. As soon as I received it for review I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn't disappointed. Roffey is surely one of the best women novelists around and this tale of Trinidad is as irresistible as her earlier work.

Her first novel, Sun Dog, tempted me to buy it after reading an excerpt. It's not easy for a debut novelist to have this effect, but there was something about her fragile anti-hero as he discovered his body was changing with the seasons, sprouting buds between fingers and toes in Spring. I just had to read more and find out about this shy young man working in a delicatessen and rebelling against the commune upbringing he'd had with his hippy mother.

The White Woman on a Green Bicycle tempts the reader just as Sun Dog did. The lush landscape of Trinidad makes us feel we're right there, or want to be there. In fact the green hills of Trinidad come so vividly to life that they actually speak to the characters and seduce them or inspire their envy.

It might be hard to imagine why one of the main characters, Sabine, doesn't want to live there and craves the London suburban home her husband promised her if she would spend a bit of time in Trinidad while he establishes himself in his job. But, from the first days, Sabine is sensitive to the feeling that Trinidad doesn't want her, doesn't want the white people still living like the colonialists of the past. She's both attracted to Trinidad and its people, and also pushed out due to her compassion and awareness. She agrees with the Trinidadians but she isn't one of them so can't rebel alongside them.

Her husband George is different. Like the other men sent there by businesses he can be important in Trinidad, can have a decent job, buy land and build his big house, and move on from the strong love he feels for his wife at the start through a series of affairs as the decades become more permissive. Gradually Sabine realises he will never keep his promise to take her home - this is his home. Her children are Creole and love the island, and she's the only disappointed one: the one who doesn't ever feel she fits in.

Roffey's expertise is in telling this story from the point of view of both characters, Sabine and George, and keeping the reader's empathy for both of them. In fact, we can tell that their love for each other has somehow survived. At the start of the book they're both old and resigned to what their life has been, having given up on what they had hoped for, so I've given away none of the plot.

Instead of making the reader wait to see what happens we start at the end of their lives and the book lets us see back into various details. The first half of the novel is from George's perspective, as an old man, wanting somehow to redeem himself in his wife's eyes. The second half is told by the young Sabine from the time of her arrival on the island through the first decades of their marriage.

I particularly enjoy a book that tells me about the history of a country that I hadn't known about, and Roffey does this in a masterful way. Not long after Sabine and George arrive the Trinidadians are roused to support the charismatic leader Eric Williams who promises to free them from the remnants of colonialism. Sabine is metaphorically seduced by him, empathising with the people, and is emotionally and physically aroused by the atmosphere he creates. I'll say no more, and leave you to discover how Roffey weaves politics, landscape, the personal and the public figures so that the bigger picture and the smaller picture somehow work together.

If I have a criticism it's that at times Roffey's style can follow the day-to-day in such a realistic way that it's possible to leave the book down and pick it up again weeks later. This happens in some chapters during the first half where we see George's view of the marriage and Trinidad. Having said that, even his account is interspersed with vivid scenes including the beating of a black teenager by the local police that had me on the edge of my seat.

Once the story moves to Sabine's perspective I couldn't get enough of it. There's always a risk when a novelist tells a story through two different viewpoints that the reader will prefer one to the other. Roffey has imagined life through the experience of both George and Sabine so well that it still feels like a major achievement, and no doubt many male readers will empathise more with George.

Compassion is a quality I look for in a novelist and Roffey certainly has it. She has written so that we can understand the history of Trinidad and this particular marriage, and she has done it without allocating blame so that we understand the reasons for the failures of individuals and even Eric Williams. The characters come to life in our minds and we remember them as if we knew them, and it's as if we've been to Trinidad or want to go. It's a novel that will stay in the mind like a memory of a real experience, and I highly recommend it.
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on 29 March 2015
I was transported to the Trinidad of my grandparents and parents time. Monique walked me through not only historical accounts but real feelings and emotions too. So much truth amidst the sadness. So beautifully written.
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VINE VOICEon 3 July 2009
The trouble begins when George and Sabine Harwood, flushed with the glow of a new marriage, arrive in Port of Spain, Trinidad in the mid-1950's. George feels immediately at home in the lush Caribbean island, whereas Sabine hates it and pines for England. But her love for George is fierce as a hurricane. She does her best to adapt; after all, George's contract is only temporary. She's very wrong.
As George falls more and more under the spell of the island and its quirky inhabitants Sabine creates her own world of secrets. Finding herself in an animated crowd listening to Eric Williams, the charismatic political leader, she falls as much under his spell as the restless Trinidadians, and recognises him as not only the island's saviour but, perhaps, her own. When Williams proves to have feet of clay Trinidad erupts into violence. Sabine is devastated; now is surely the time to flee! But the island won't let them go that easily.
Decades later George discovers Sabine's hidden past, and, driven by remorse, tries to put things right. As their marriage crash-lands the two struggle to regain the love they once had, but it might be too late.
Known to most Europeans only as the "big sister" to the holiday island Tobago, Trinidad has a fascinating life of its own. V.S. Naipaul opened a door on that life decades ago; Monique Roffey opens it yet wider, and paints a wonderful picture of a small country with a big and colourful past, a small corner of Britain's crumbling Empire.
Behind the cliché of white Caribbean sands, turquoise sea and cloudless blue skies lie the dark areas, slavery's shadow, and a people resentful of white domination. As that people rise up in anger racism begets racism, and it's time for the hard questions. Monique Roffey asks them fearlessly... but subtly, for Trinidad, the third party in this marriage gone wrong, will seduce the reader as much as she does George
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on 2 August 2009
Excellent book I am from Trinidad and happen to live in the general area in which the story is set. The story has such a ring of truth to it and at times I could not put it down. The perspective is an interesting one as growing up I only know the black power side of the story so it was very interesting to get a glimpse into what the expats were experiencing at the time. I also enjoyed trying to figure out the characters as I am convinced that I know a few of them. I know that it is fiction but like I said it has such a ring of truth to it. I passed the book onto my mother and she enjoyed it as she could identify more closely with the main character and the events.
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A good, but not great book, which it would be easy to criticise with faint praise. It suffers somewhat from its structure, which undermines what could have been a more emotionally powerful story. Set on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, it opens with a section written in the third person, centred on an elderly white couple still living in Trinidad in 2006. Around a third of the way through it switches to the first person and narrates the story of how they came to the island in its colonial days, and lived through the turbulence of independence. The second section is by far the more effective. The characters at the beginning are hard to like and their motivations aren't easy to understand, particularly the dramatic event at the end of the section. Despite the powerful themes in this part of the book, I didn't feel very emotionally engaged. Whereas the use of the first person in the rest of the novel brings the characters to life, giving the reader the chance to develop the empathy that is needed to really enjoy the story. It's not unusual to find a book that has a slow start. But this novel falls down by having placed the dramatic conclusion at the beginning, at a time when the reader is left rather cold and baffled. This means that the second part, whilst well executed, is something of an anti-climax.

There are lots of good things here too, though. The use of the Trinidadian accent is really well done - often the use of dialect or accents in books is irritating or hard to read, but here I found it easy to understand and I was able to 'hear' the accent very clearly through the writing. The setting is vividly described without getting bogged down in too much description. Likewise the historical aspects are covered in enough detail for the reader to understand but without getting dull or didactic. There are some powerful themes here, about colonialism, racism and post-colonial politics, and these are balanced well against the more human themes of the difficulties of love and married life, and the importance of a sense of belonging. Some of the ideas were odd, including the whole concept of the letters on which the story was based, and the main characters' imagined conversations with the hill shaped like a woman jarred on me. But those were relatively minor. I did enjoy reading about Trinidad and its history, being a country I knew very little about, and one of the joys of reading for me is the chance to learn about different places and cultures through fiction.

If only the structure had been a little different, perhaps with a final section set after the events of the opening, I would have awarded this four stars. Roffey is a good writer, despite my minor annoyances with the book, and I would happily read another by her if the topic interested me. It's more for readers who like character driven than plot driven novels. I would recommend to readers with an interest in the Caribbean and/or in colonialism/post-colonialism.
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on 28 May 2017
White Woman Green Bicycle.
Just finished this book and have to say I enjoyed it. It's a book I have found easy to dip in and out having two main characters form the story. They arrive from Britain to Trinidad, a young couple with hopes and dreams of a new life together. Among the last colonials to arrive in the country they both see this world they are thrust in to in vastly different ways. Steadily it makes its mark on their characters and their relationships at a telling time in Trinidads history. But it was also a time when women themselves were devoid of power and collateral to change their lot. She is unhappy and wants to move back to England he wants to stay....so they do. This was very much how things were back then, one promised to love honour and obey and the male made the decisions and held on to the money. Younger readers not having lived through and experienced these times in general might find the protagonists infuriating in that she doesn't leave and he doesn't consider compromise. Although gentle in pace it is very much a piece of historical fiction with the backdrop set in The Trinidad of the 1950s and 1960s. The the main characters are very much influenced by starting their new lives in a country where colonialism had virtually had its day. At the start there was an excited optimism of a country verging on independence. As things progressed broken promises and unfulfilled ideals charged the atmosphere and political unrest led to violence and gang related hostilities and murder. As I have said not a difficult read, but it is an interesting one, where the history and the character types of both people are crucial to the development of a tale well told with the green bicycle playing a very symbolic part throughout the story.
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on 28 March 2017
When life gets in the way of quality reading time it can affect how you feel about a book. The first 150 pages of this book took me an age to read, not because they were terrible, because I just wasn't getting time with my book. This made it hard for me to be absorbed into the story for quite sometime however I seriously think this is because of the space I was in, not the book. However for anyone who loves a book that grabs you from page one, pulls you in tight and doesn't let go, this may not be the book for you.

In a nutshell, it's a book that tells the story of Sabine and George, a couple who move to Trinidad from England (although Sabine is actually French). The book spans 50 years, the first third set in the current time, then returning to the 50's and then the 70's.
Now I only know Trinidad (and Tobago) to be high up on my wish list for places to visit- a tropical paradise. I knew nothing of the political unrest that began in the 60's and continued into the 70's, so this book was a great educator. I really do love reading fictional books that still teach me something new.

The main protagonist is Sabine and the story closely follows her relationship with Trinidad and her husband George, both of which are far from perfect and hugely intertwined. She also becomes quite obsessed with the eventual prime minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams which introduces an interesting dynamic although this was the one aspect of the book I struggled with most.
The writing is strong, thought provoking and evocative; the heat and humidity of Trinidad almost rising out of the pages in steamy waves at times.
The pace is steady, I feel it picks up when we go back in time and I certainly enjoyed the second half more than the first (but as previously mentioned, was this due to my lack of reading time).

I have given this 4 stars, mainly for the quality writing style and for the fabulous introduction to a time and place I know little about. I would be interested to read other books from this writer.
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on 3 September 2009
This is one of the best books I have read in years. It has everything you want from a novel - incredible use of language, fascinating context (Trinidad's emerging independence) and wonderful characters who stay with you long after the book is finished. Along the way it also tackles colonialism, racism, and the realities of a long marriage with intelligence, wit and poignancy. Oh, and the plot's cracking too. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 October 2012
Monique Roffey's second novel is a wonderfully detailed depiction of Trinidad: in this decade, in the last days of British rule in the 1950s and in the country's first decades of independence (1960s and 1970s). The first part of the novel is set in 2006, and narrated in the third person. Brit George Harwood and his French wife Sabine have been living in Trinidad for over forty years, somehow staying on after nearly all the other Brits left. George, still lively and energetic at 75, works as a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian, while Sabine looks after their house and land with the help of her maid, drinks, and dreams of the different life she might have had if they'd left Trinidad when she wished, all those years ago. George and Sabine's marriage has evolved over the years, after some dramas, into a gentle, rather lethargic companionship. This changes abruptly, however, when George discovers a cache of letters written by Sabine to the former Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams. He reads the letters, and realizes that he knows little about his wife. Inspired by the fervour of the letters, he determines to do something that will make Sabine proud of him, and finally open his eyes to the political corruption on the island. Meanwhile Sabine, taunted by their daughter Pascale for never doing anything with her life other than complain, determines that she too will act - with startling consequences...

The drama then shifts back abruptly to the 1950s and to George and Sabine's arrival on Trinidad, for what is intended to be a three-year posting. For the rest of the narrative, which goes from 1953 to 1970, we are told the story in the first person by Sabine. While George immediately fell in love with Trinidad (and its women!) and determined to make a life there, Sabine was uneasy practically from arrival, feeling unwanted by the Trinidadians, overpowered by the heat, and convinced the British should leave the island. We follow Sabine through her years in Trinidad, and her growing obsession with Eric Williams, leader of the PNM (People's National Movement). To help sort out her confused feelings about Trinidad, Sabine begins writing to Williams - long letters that she never sends, even after she's met and spoken with him. After Trinidad is granted independence and Williams becomes Prime Minister, Sabine has hopes that the country may flourish - though she still longs to leave. And yet, corruption and poverty seem rife, and, with the Black Power movement gaining power as the people become disillusioned with Williams, Sabine realizes that she and George are increasingly under threat. Her letters to Williams grow ever more intense as the sense of danger grows, and it seems the only way to survive for George, Sabine and their children is to leave. But will George, who has gone so far as to become a Trinidadian national, ever be willing to leave his island paradise?

I found this book absolutely fascinating; I learnt a great deal about Trinidad and its politics (subjects about which I knew very little), without ever feeling that Roffey was lecturing the reader; I also thought her descriptions of the island incredibly beautiful. Roffey brought Eric Williams vividly to life (though I'm not sure I was entirely sure quite what he felt for Sabine - were they in love?), and after a slowish first section, I felt the pacing of the book from the 1953 section onwards excellent. I also liked the way that Roffey highlighted the differences between George - happier in Trinidad than in the UK but only seeing the aspects he wanted to see of the island life, very attractive but in certain aspects an old style 'Colonist - and Sabine, who becomes politically aware through her suffering and is aware that however beautiful Trinidad is it is not her or George's home. Roffey also wrote well of the complex relationship between the couple, deeply attracted to each other but in many ways very different, and possibly not wholly good for each other. And some of Roffey's dialogue and language was beautiful - I particularly liked Sabine's comment, looking at the struggling Williams in his later years: 'Men of substance do not make good politicians'. The Trinidadian patois used can take a bit of getting used to, but actually works rather well to differentiate between the British 'outsiders' and the Trinidadians, showing the divide between them.

There was a great deal I much admired about this book - but I have to say I also found it, on consideration, deeply depressing and pessimistic (none of the following material is a spoiler, as it is mostly based on the early, 2006 section of the book). Not only (as in real life) does Trinidad suffer terrible problems, but none of Roffey's principal characters seem to experience much happiness or achieve their desires - life for all of them is a pretty miserable affair. George is perhaps the exception, but he can only survive by living in a fantasy, shutting his eyes to the political problems about him and to his wife's depression at his philandering. Sabine, a bright woman who nevertheless has never really used her brain before arriving in Trinidad (she has grown up thinking of marriage as her only career option, and never considered the other option of working and being independent) is trapped in her marriage, unable to leave the husband she both loves and resents, eventually turned (not a spoiler as we see the older Sabine first) from a vivacious and fun-loving young woman into a plump, blotchy-faced old woman on the brink of alcoholism; ultimately Trinidad destroys her and her potential. Pascale, Sabine and George's daughter, fulfills none of her promise as an artist, and becomes an overweight wife and mother with a loud voice and a love of drink who dislikes her mother. Sebastian, Sabine and George's son, does escape to England, but feels damaged emotionally by his upbringing, packed off to school in England aged seven. Eric Williams, who genuinely wished to help his people at least to some degree, also ends up feeling he has failed. And the modern Trinidad is a bitter place, filled with corruption and disillusionment.

I was impressed with this book's scope, and with Roffey's beautiful writing and ability to tell a vivid story - but the almost total pessimism at the heart of the narrative might discourage me re-reading it. Still, a fine achievement, and it certainly deserved its place on the Orange Prize shortlist.
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on 7 June 2010
I didn't come across The White Woman on the Green Bicycle until it appeared on the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction. I wasn't sure that it would be my sort of book, but I heard so much praise that I really had to order a copy. Since then it appeared on the shortlist, and now that I have read it I have to say that I would be thrilled to see it win. A wonderful book!

It tells the story of one woman, her life and marriage, and wraps around it the story of Trinidad in the second half of the twentieth century. French born Sabine moved to Trinidad in 1956 with her English husband, George. He has a three year contract with a shipping company. It's an adventure, and they are young, happy, and confident that they will suceed where, it seems, many before them have failed.

George fell in love with Trinidad. The surroundings, the climate, the lifestyle.
Monique Roffey's rich and evocative prose makes it easy to see why. But she describes a darker and more violent side to Trinidad too. Sabine hates Trinidad: the heat, the humidity, the rigid social code of the ex pat community, the racial segregation. She accepts that she wil have to stay until the end of her husband's contract, but she sees her future in England. But George sees his future in Trinidad, and has no intention of returning to England. He would happily spend his whole life in Trinidad. And so the relationship between Sabine and George, inevitably, deteriorates. They continue to love each other deeply, but they many never understand each other.And so Sabine is tied: she could leave Trinidad, but she could never leave George.

Meanwhile, the country is changing. And one day Sabine is caught up in a rally for a new political party, a party demanding an end to colonial rule and better things for the native people, as she rides her green bicycle to the market. She starts to take an interest in the local politics, she argues with the other ex pat wives, and bonds grow between her and her family's native maids. She will never love the country but she grows to love its people and hope for their future. And she writes letters to the new party's leader, sharing her hopes, her fears, her concerns, her ideas. She knows that she will never be able to send them and so she stores them away. Her husband though is her mirror image. He continues to love the country, but he will never be more than an ex pat and he will never understand, never even want to understand its people. And years later George will find Sabine's letters...

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a powerful, complex, rich story of a woman, a marriage and a country. There are many details, many emotions, and each and every one rings true.

Many questions are posed. Some are answered, but others are too difficult. The story is non chronological - the ending is seen first, through George's eyes and then the past is revealed from Sabine's point of view. And that works well, focusing attention on events and relationships as they unfold without the distraction of wondering where they are leading.

The language and the imagery are dark and dazzling, slowly but surely painting complex and vivid pictures of personal and political histories. And the story is compelling.

A wonderful book!
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