Book Quote:

“White men. White men like George Harwood. They all take, take, take. All the second-raters, those who aren’t good enough to survive in England, they come out to the West Indies and swan about. Buy land, build. Set up shop. They come and stay, ruining their second-rate minds. Is that what you want? To be married to such a man? A man who’ll ruin you too?”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (MAY 21, 2011)

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey takes an intriguingly different view of the corrosive impact of colonialism. This tale covers fifty years of tumultuous Trinidad history seen through the lives of a married couple–George and Sabine Harwood. The novel begins in 2006–fifty years after the arrival of the Harwoods in Trinidad. They are now in their 70s, and even though they’ve spent more than half a century together, they still, basically, don’t understand each other. Neither do they understand Trinidad. The big difference between George and Sabine, however, is that he thinks he understands Trinidad–whereas Sabine fully realizes that certain aspects of her adopted country will always elude her. Another huge difference between George and Sabine is that he loves Trinidad and cannot imagine living anywhere else. Years earlier, he blithely became a Trinidad citizen and never really gave much thought to the physical or moral consequences of committing to a country fraught with horrific poverty and tumultuous politics. George has always been very comfortable with being the White Man in a country where native blacks are exploited. Sabine, on the other hand, has never felt comfortable about being one of the white ruling class even though George insists that their Trinidadian standard of living is far superior to anything they could achieve in Britain.

The couple’s two adult children, Pasquale and Sebastian are living examples of the division of Trinidad and British culture; Pasquale is a pure Trinidadian deeply embedded in the culture. She speaks the local patois and is married into a prominent Trinidad family. Sebastian, on the other hand, a product of British boarding schools, is undiluted British and chooses to live in London. Although he considers that his parents led a “glamorous” life, to Sebastian, Trinidad is a place to go for a holiday–it’s certainly not home. George Harwood isn’t close to Sebastian while Sabine sometimes feels alienated from her daughter.

When the novel begins, George, now retired, is still extremely active. He writes a popular column in The Trinidad Guardian and interviews local celebrities such as cricketer Brian Lara, and he maintains his lifelong habit of frequenting black prostitutes. Sabine has never really established much of a social life, and most of the British population left during the bloodier periods of Trinidad’s recent history. She stays home with her servant/companion, Jennifer, takes valium, and drinks heavily. While George loves Trinidad and thinks he’s adjusted well to life there, Sabine understands that as relics of colonialism, they’re not welcome. She wanted to return to Britain years ago, but now it’s too late. A crisis occurs when Jennifer’s son Talbot is savagely beaten by local corrupt police. George mistakenly believes that as a white man he has some influence, and he gets involved.

The first half of the novel is set in 2006, and the second half goes back to 1956 when George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from Britain as newlyweds. George sees the job as a clerk with a shipping company as a wonderful opportunity and his French wife Sabine agrees–but with the provision that they stay for three years. But three years turns into a lifetime….

From the moment George disembarks from the ship that takes him to Trinidad until fifty years later, he remains a white colonial outsider who demands special privileges. Yet, if you asked George, he’d argue that he’s “adjusted” to life there. In reality he donned the costume of a white “master” and never gave that up–in spite of the fact that Trinidad became independent. On the other hand, Sabine, who hates the lifestyle of the white-colonialist-country-club crowd initially became involved with Trinidad politics mainly through her relationship with charismatic politician Eric Williams. From her first day in Trinidad, Sabine notes the injustices directed towards the native population, and the “country club” rules of the reigning whites. Sabine wants no part of colonial life, but she’s overruled by George. As a white man George sees a better future for himself and a better standard of living in Trinidad than back in England. To George, the issue of morality doesn’t enter into his decision to stay. Here’s George to Sabine on the subject of returning to England:

“What do you want me to do? Go back to a desk job in the City? Commute with my briefcase, going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark, on the train and the tube like so may of those poor fucks. I can’t do that. Here I’m someone. We know everyone. What do you want from me? To go back to Harrow on the fucking hill?”

Sabine, however, thinks that George’s motivation to stay is based on much uglier motives. In Trinidad, being “someone” also means being white and privileged:

“Isn’t that why you came here, why you accepted that lowly office job out here, a dot on the map? Out here you can be someone. You can be master, invent yourself, a little king.” George stood very still and calm; rage choked in his throat.

“We invented this island. Wasn’t that the whole point of the West Indies, eh? A get-rich-quick scheme for Europeans?”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is the history of a marriage torn apart by endless infidelities and the divisiveness of opposing beliefs. George is comfortable with being the “white master” and enjoys the attendant privileges–cheap local labour, cheap easily available prostitutes, and the lifestyle of landed gentry, but Sabine, who basically has nothing to occupy herself with, turns to valium and booze as George willfully ignores her request to leave Trinidad.

While the novel covers the history of the Harwoods’ marriage, it also covers fifty years of Trinidad history seen through Sabine’s eyes: the rise of the PNM, Trinidad Independence, and then as the promise of a better Trinidad turns sour, she recalls, Eric Williams, Geddes Granger, Stokely Carmichael, Black Power, riots, and a few Molotov cocktails. Through the Harwoods, Monique Roffey’s novel takes an intensely intimate look at colonialism and shows us that even those who in theory reap benefits from being the masters of the British Empire ultimately pay a high price for this “privilege.”


AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 3 readers
PUBLISHER: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (April 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Monique Roffey
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez

Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid



  • With the Kisses of His Mouth (June 2011)

May 21, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Caribbean, Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, Reading Guide, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.