Tuesday 17 August 2010

The White Women on the Green Bicycle

This is the title of the book I’ve just finished reading.

I’ve not had much chance to read many books recently, except for McNae’s Essential Media Law for Journalists. Having passed my Media Law exam back in April, I won’t be picking it up for a while. I'm glad I've got time to read some fiction again and do my first book review.

The book’s written by Monique Roffey and has been short-listed for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction.

The story is set on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and revolves around two characters, George and Sabine Harwood who move from England in the late 1950s to begin a new life on the island.

George immediately falls in love with Trinidad, while his wife Sabine struggles to adapt. Feeling isolated and alone she begins to find some outlet for her unhappiness by writing letters to the country’s political leader Eric Williams.

Williams is the leader of the new national party who goes on to become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad following independence from Britain in 1962.

The strange thing is, Sabine writes hundreds of letters to Williams but never sends any of them to him; instead she keeps them all in boxes.

It’s only years later in 2006, when the story begins that her husband discovers these letters. He finally realises some of the unhappiness and secrets his wife has kept from him and becomes desperate to prove his love for her.

Not quite sure where Trinidad is? Take a look.

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I have to admit, when reading my description back it doesn’t sound like the most appealing of stories.

An unhappy white woman doesn’t like life on a Caribbean island in the 1950s. She becomes a talking point for locals by riding a green bicycle everywhere, before writing letters to an unheard of former Caribbean Prime Minister.

In saying that, I absolutely loved this book. It’s a real celebration of Trinidad; it’s people, culture and landscape.

It’s also a love story between George and Sabine and their overall relationship with each other. But what I really liked is that it’s just a story about people and people’s lives. That's what I enjoy reading about.

Finally, you’ve got the historical aspect of the story which tells you what life was like in the Caribbean during the 1950’s and early 60’s as British colonialism was coming to an end.

I suppose the fact that I’m Afro Caribbean myself made this story naturally appeal to me. I know all about West Indians leaving the Caribbean to come to England in search for jobs. My own grandparents were part of that generation; but I know very little about the struggle for independence that took place in places like Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean.

Sabine is acutely aware that she is a member or a white ruling elite, who are increasingly resented by the black population. They’re no longer wanted, and this knowledge only increases Sabine’s feelings of not belonging.

The author also manages to convey the sense of change that was happening on the island through the charismatic leadership of Eric Williams. Through a number of rallying speeches delivered in the capital, Port of Spain, he begins to galvanise the black population to take control over their own destiny, reminding them that colonialism had been for the benefit of the British and not the native islanders.

British colonial rule was finally coming to an end all over the Empire, and it was time for Trinidad to claim its own independence.

I’ve read a few online reviews about the book and it seems I’m unusual in being a male who’s read it. That doesn’t bother me. Most fiction I read tends to be written by male authors, so it’s good to try and diversify your reading habits.

Most of the reviews have been quite positive, but I did come across one blog where a number of people commented that the book’s theme of one person’s alienation and problems adapting to a foreign country, are quite common and popular with publishers. They felt this type of story had been told a number of times already.

There were also criticisms that the black political struggle the book highlights, are told through the eyes of a white character and how this political change affects the white community on the island.

Personally I didn’t feel that the struggle for black political power was overshadowed or diminished by this. In some ways the fact that Sabine is a white British/French expat made the story more intriguing to me.

I think as a reader you can take the book in a number of ways. You've got the love story between Sabine and George; then the story of Trinidad itself, the island and its people. Finally there's an historical novel of a country finding its freedom.

I’d certainly recommend it, as it’s one of those books that when you finish, you feel a little bit sad because you’ve enjoyed it so much.

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