book review: White Woman on the Green Bicycle

White Woman on th Green Bicycle
The backstory: If you don't know the Orange Prize is my recent obsession, then you must be new here (WELCOME!). The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is on this year's shortlist, and the wonderful folks at interlibrary loan were able to procure a copy for me so I could read it even though it hasn't been published in the U.S. yet. Although I was not familiar with Monique Roffey before this year's Orange Prize, I was looking forward to reading this one because the cover plays with color gorgeously.

The basics: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is the story of Sabine and George Harwood, a young couple who moved from England to Trinidad fifty years ago, near the end of the island's colonial history. The novel opens in 2006, and George and Sabine are unhappily married. Trinidad is rampant with political corruption and reckless cops who seemingly don't face consequences for their actions.

My thoughts: The first half of this novel occurs in 2006. Then, the narrative jumps back fifty years to Sabine and George's first days in Trinidad. The shift is dramatic, both in language and character, and it adds layers of meaning. The themes of temporary and permanent decisions resound through this book, as do the themes of similarities and differences. The modern part of the novel features an abundance of the Creole dialect, and it required me to read it more slowly until I got used to it. I realized I was used to it when the narrative jumped backward and the language became structured, traditional British English. Roffey used language wonderfully to emphasize the assimilation of George and Sabine. George adores Trinidad; Sabine despises it. George and Sabine have two children. As we learn in the first part of the novel, their daughter married and settles on Trinidad, while their son resides in England. It's a bold move to begin your story at the end, but it works; I cannot imagine this novel being told in traditional narrative order. All parts of this novel paint a vivid portrait of Trinidad, and seeing it through a tumultuous political transition was fascinating. I knew little of Trinidad, its people or customs, but passages such as this one tell its story beautifully:
"Jennifer never liked it when Sabine talked around things, what she called English talk. Even though she knew the Harwoods well, she disapproved of any vagueness; she saw it as cowardice, somehow even as lying. Trinidadians had the tendency to be explicitly honest about everything." (p. 41)
"A love that was still taboo in Europe was unavoidable in Trinidad." (p. 337) 
This novel is simultaneously a story of Trinidad and a story of humanity:
"Why do expect people in power to be different? We treat politicians like parents, it's the same relationship. We never forgive them if they fuck up." (p. 61) 
Ultimately, this novel is the story of George of Sabine and the disintegration of their marriage.
'In England I'd have been as unhappy as you are here.' He moaned. 'I'm selfish.' 
"I loved George but our marriage was always under threat. Other men wanted me and other women wanted George. This was both thrilling and worrying." (p. 337) 
The novel's biggest joy is that Roffey manages to give it suspense even though the ending comes first. After pondering, I wonder if Sabine would consider the novel's end the end of her story. I confess, when I first read the last page of this novel I was unsure what I thought of this novel. As I was reading it, it moved from what I would be a four-star novel to a five-star one, but I had to ponder the implications of the ending. It seemed unsatisfying at the time, but after a few days of contemplation, it seems absolutely perfect, and I'm proud to call The White Women on the Green Bicycle not only one of my favorite books of the year but a truly original, captivating tale of a couple and a place.

The verdict: It's a book I will reread many times over my life.

Orange thoughts: I love this book, and I will be thrilled if it wins. Black Water Rising would edge it out and get my vote, but discovering two wonderful novels on this shortlist was a joy, and if I were a betting woman, I'd bet on this one winning.

Rating: 5 stars
Length: 448 pages
Publication date: Sadly, there's no word on a U.S. release date yet, but Penguin USA has purchased the rights! It is available from Amazon UK and the Book Depository (free shipping worldwide!)
Source: my beloved friends in interlibrary loan who allow me to be well-read for the Orange Prize

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  1. I'm in complete agreement: it would be easy to miss the power of this novel and to overlook the careful crafting (especially if you were reading primarily for plot and missing the subtleties in structure and characterization) but I think it's beautifully and solidly done. I think the vote will come down to how much of a risk the jury is prepared to take: I'd love to see this win and I think it has a very good chance based on the book's merits, but the jury might be looking for a "better known" name.

  2. I'm hoping that it wins too! It was far to slow for me, but it is my favourite on the short list. It would be so nice if one of the lesser known authors win - especially since they deserve it!

  3. I am so glad to see you liked this book! I have it on my wishlist and I think it looks great. This makes me want to read it soon!

  4. To read or not to read that is the questions when I see this book. After your review, I think not. Thanks for the review. :)


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