The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Published: 2009
Author: Monique Roffey


An evocative portrait of a marriage and a country in crisis – but an unsympathetic cast of characters


A colleague once told me that whenever he travelled he read a book by a local author or set in the area he was visiting.  I thought this was a brilliant idea so when I had a work trip to Jerusalem I followed his advice and bought a book by an Israeli author.  It was a real mistake – just blibbering nonsense about life on a kibbutz.  I’ve managed to put the name of both the book and the author completely out of my mind and I have never since used fiction as an aide to travel.  I think, however, I may have found a book that will take me off to Trinidad.

Monique Roffey’s Orange Prize short-listed novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is the story of George and Sabine Harwood, a newly married couple who travel to Trinidad in 1951, during the dying days of British colonial rule.  While George falls in love with the island, Sabine hates her new life and wants to return to her dream home in Harrow on the Hill.   As the years go by and the couple stay in Trinidad, Sabine becomes obsessed with charismatic politician Eric Williams, collecting press cuttings and writing him hundreds of letters that are never sent.  Through Sabine’s eyes we experience the changing political, cultural and social landscape of Trinidad and how this affects migrants like George and Sabine and the native population of the island, characterised by the Harwood’s domestic servants.

One of the reviews quoted on the book’s cover calls The White Woman on the Green Bicycle a love letter to Trinidad.  I can understand that, the author clearly loves the island but it is not a blind love, it isn’t unconditional.  Monique Roffey sees the darker side of the country.  She doesn’t shy away from the post-independence struggle to ease the lives of poverty stricken islanders or the high murder rates and police brutality of today.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle however, isn’t a love story – it’s a story of passion:  George and Sabine’s passion for one another; George’s passion for Trinidad; Sabine’s passionate hatred of her new home and life and her simultaneous love for and hatred of Eric Williams.  Spanning five decades this book tells the story of both a marriage and a country trying to find their place in the world.

There are some real weaknesses in The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.  The story is told in reverse, which works to a certain degree but leaves a major plot unresolved in the middle of the book.  The main characters are neither particularly likable nor sympathetic which makes it hard to care very much about their narrative.  I enjoyed the novel but felt curiously unsatisfied having found no real conclusion to the story.

Despite being slightly disappointed with The White Woman on the Green Bicycle I would say that it is worth reading, if only for the evocative images of Trinidad and the desire it creates to get on a Caribbean bound flight with only rum cocktails as luggage.

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