By Victoria Best
Monique Roffey has been on a creative roll for the best part of a decade and has seen her work rise to prominence and gain critical acclaim; her forties, she said in an interview in The Observer, have been years of ‘enormous creative activity and growth’ in which she has operated with ‘a realistic sense of the work, mental energy and stamina needed to lead a creative life.’ And this began with an unexpected crisis that seemed to release her in all sorts of ways.
Back in 2006 aged 41, Roffey was suddenly plunged into life-altering heartbreak and sorrow. Roffey and her partner had been Centre Directors for the Arvon Foundation for almost four years when she discovered his infidelity. She packed her bags and headed back to her mother in Trinidad. ‘It was a dire time: I could barely speak about what had happened,’ she wrote in an article about the experience for The Guardian. But already she was writing. From March to May 2006 she wrote what would become The White Woman on a Green Bicycle, her breakthrough novel.
At its foundation was a chip of autobiography. In 1956 Roffey’s parents, her Meditterranean mother and English father, arrived in Port of Spain with two suitcases and a green bicycle. She grew up dazzled by her parents’ charisma and their fierce attraction: ‘What I always knew about my parents was that they were in love, and this love had a fizz. It was exciting to be their child, to be around them.’ (Guardian 8th May 2010) Her novel traced the passage of a turbulent marriage against the backdrop of a turbulent political situation, the heavy, sensual beauty of Trinidad acting as a cleaving force for her couple, tying them into the events on the island and forcing them apart because of their wildly different responses. It is an extraordinary piece of writing, utterly fearless in its appraisal of both long-term love and short-sighted politics and a sumptuous hymn to the oppressive beauty of the Caribbean.
It’s fair to say that the story travels a long way away from that halcyon glimpse of her parents’ marriage when she was a child. When I asked Monique Roffey about her creative process she explained: ‘I think the writing is the easy bit. Novels start to form in me and can grow for years – then I piece it together in notebooks and scraps of paper. In the end I sit down to write a first draft. I try to write 1000 words a day for 90 days to get a first draft out. That’s where the big energy of the book usually resides. But all the work happens in my head for months if not years before I write.’
Initially, it was hard to place The White Woman on a Green Bicycle. It was rejected by 27 publishers before finding a home and received no newspaper reviews. Its worth was seen, however, by the jury for the Orange Prize who shortlisted it for their 2010 award. ‘It has made a big difference to my career,’ Roffey told me. ‘It was a surprise too. It was my big break and I feel grateful for what that prize did for women’s fiction.’
Her next novel, published in 2012, was Archipelago, another big, bold narrative about a sea voyage undertaken by the grieving Gavin Weald and his young daughter, Océan. Gavin’s family has been destroyed by a flood which devastated his house and killed his baby son. His wife is at her mother’s, comatose with medication and sorrow, and Gavin is aware that his own grip on sanity is far from certain. In the hope of finding his reliable sense of self, as well as healing distraction, he bundles his daughter and the family dog, Suzy, onto his old boat, Romany and heads out to the Galapagos Islands via the Panama Canal. The result is a gorgeous and emotionally-wrenching account of adventure and calamity, and a paeon to nature which can destroy as easily as it can enchant.
Again a kernal of truth lies at the heart of this story: Roffey’s brother’s house was flooded in 2008 and two years later, the author undertook the same journey to the Galapagos. When I asked her about her use of historical fact in her novels she told me, ‘Real life events, such as a couple arriving in the 1950s in Trinidad with a green bicycle, or a massive flood which destroys a home, or a coup d’etat – these real life stories give me the hard energy or centre of story. From there I make my way in to fiction. I like to use myth as well, for example Archipelago aligns with the same journey as Odysseus in some respects, except Gavin is no hero; he fails all the great tests on his voyage. Embedded in House of Ashes is the Fisher King myth. Myths heal. And so my work tends to be a collage of real life events, myth and fiction woven together.’
There’s undoubtedly something elemental and powerful motivating Monique Roffey’s fiction. Her novels are amazingly vivid and visceral and I’m intrigued by the way she pushes her characters to their limits. I asked her whether she saw humans as immensely strong or surprisingly weak compared to their surroundings. ‘My characters are just human,’ she replied. ‘I think true character reveals itself under pressure. When we are caught or trapped or under stress or shock – we really show ourselves. I like to see what my characters are made of.’
Archipelago was the deserved winner of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winning both the fiction award and the award for overall best book. And now, only two years later, House of Ashes has been published, another novel which Roffey says shows ‘how people cope under dire duress.’ It was loosely inspired by a revolution that took place in Trinidad in 1990 and is Roffey’s most dangerous novel to date. Not just in the subject matter she tackles, but because she risks alerting the religious group behind the original uprising to her commentary upon it. In an interview to The Independent she admitted, ‘I thought I was crazy to even contemplate writing about it.’ And she spent a year discussing the idea with her psychoanalyst. In the end, the research for the project ultimately became too compelling to ignore. ‘For House of Ashes, I read most of the witness testimonies for the Commission of Enquiry in to 1990 which took place in Trinidad from 2011-13. I went to court too, to listen to some of the testimonies first hand. That was my core reading.’ The book that emerged out of it is a brilliant and brutal account of how men become enmeshed in extremeist ideas, a further exploration of the notion of male power that has been a mainstay of Roffey’s fictional preoccupations from the start.
If you haven’t read Monique Roffey, then you really should give her work a try. Few women write about revolution, politics and adventure on the high seas and not only get away with it, but do so with extraordinary skill and courage. She is a fearless writer who achieves that rare combination known only to truly great fiction – the powerful idea entirely fleshed out in engrossing storytelling.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Read Jean’s review of House of Ashes here.