House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

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Reviewed by Jean Morris

Had I not so much enjoyed Monique Roffey’s previous novels, each one more than the last, I’m not sure I’d have wanted to read House of Ashes, the close-up account of a failed coup some 20 years ago in a fictional country not far from her native Trinidad. Fiction, after all, is where I go to escape from the dreadful bombardment of the daily news! I wonder how many good books such impulsive reactions make me miss out on. It didn’t take me long to realise this was nothing I might have imagined – as long as it took to read the intimate, sensual opening pages:

The scent of the other brothers rose in his nostrils, their shirt sleeves pressed against his, their skin on his skin; some had oiled their hair, others had bathed with soap, others hadn’t bathed at all, their clothes heat-stained and days old. Altogether their bodies gave off a smell like red clay earth after the rains fell hard from the skies above Sans Amen. The experience of being here, together, was always like this, intimate and intoxicating. Each of them was solitary and each was connected and surrendered to God. Ashes felt most alive here, called inwards, as though prayer cast a spell on his and the spell was to do with this invisible force. There was a longing inside him, since childhood, since his brother River had died, to be with the beautiful.

It’s a painting in words, a renaissance genre painting of a crowd.

Ashes, the quiet, bookish family man who works as a hospital porter and grows medicinal herbs in his back garden, is perhaps the least likely of this motley group of rebels. Still deeply affected by the childhood trauma of his beloved older brother’s death in an earlier Black Power rebellion against the corrupt, post-colonial government, he has found some peace of mind and a spiritual home in the quasi-religious group around a charismatic man known only as The Leader. After the prayer meeting described above, the women are sent away and guns handed out to the men of a community forged in social work, utopian rhetoric and shared devotions. Outside, ramshackle vehicles wait to take them to the TV centre and the parliament building. A recently elected left-of-centre government has moved too slowly to confront corruption and respond to poverty and protests, disappointed its supporters by resorting to IMF loans that come with the usual conditions of austerity. The time has come; the coup d’état is about to happen.

Not a spiritual but a practical home is what Breeze, a  fourteen-year-old street kid, has found in The Leader’s compound, where dormitories house many such adopted “sons”, providing them with some security and belonging in place of the violence and criminality of the streets. Just fourteen years old, bright, feisty, brutalised and ignorant – and now he has a gun!

At the parliament building, an extravagant, crumbling colonial edifice, shots are fired, lives lost, and the prime minister and several of his cabinet members taken hostage, among them our third protagonist. Mrs Aspasia Garland, Minister of the Environment, is a middle-class woman in her forties with two teenage children, an activist since her own teens, who entered politics and government with high ideals. She looks at boys like Breeze and, through her fear and anger, sees her own son:

Breeze, he was the one I’d actually grown fond of. It was strange to think this way. I had come to almost like one of the gunmen. He seemed so very, very serious, and yes, even dangerous in demeanour, and yet he didn’t scare me. I saw flickers of concern in the young boy’s eyes, like he was constantly trying to understand everything… on and off, there was a nagging thought. Was the young boy Breeze right? Was all this our fault?

Events unfurl horribly and poignantly. Each development, each character is symbolic, as is the whole scenario of this small city in a small country, where it keeps turning out that people know one another. This is never, though, at the expense of telling details and believable, affecting personal relationships. Set-piece political exchanges are delivered with the lightest of touches and a pitch-perfect evocation of Caribbean speech rhythms. Throughout, there are memorable visual images like that of the hostages, hog-tied and laid out in a pattern on the floor beneath the high, ornate plaster ceiling of the parliamentary chamber. The characters are complex, the violent rebels sometimes vulnerable and the too-complacent politicians sometimes compassionate and brave. Conditions deteriorate in the House of Power, which is quickly surrounded by the army. None of those inside will ever be the same again.

There is so much here, about the legacies of slavery and colonialism, about power and deprivation, gender and family, tenderness and – astonishingly amidst so much horror and futility – hope.

You know… I think we don’t need guns to change anything, Change is upon us all the time. Change is natural and ever present. Nothing stays the same. Everything is always moving. We are always growing. Our hair grows, our skin flakes, we grow each day. Every situation moves forward in its own way.

If I have a criticism of Monique Roffey’s writing it’s perhaps that structure and technique are so finely honed that they sometimes show through, like the bones of a very slim, elegant woman. But this scarcely detracts from the impact of a deeply humane and engaging story. After a shocking crescendo, the narrative “pans out”, steps away down the years, but with little sense of anti-climax. What a fine, surprising, moving novel.

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Jean Morris is a long-time blogger, but between blogs at the moment. She used to work internationally with politicians a lot like the ones in this book.

Monique Roffey. House of Ashes. (London: Simon & Schuster, 2014) 978-1-47112-667-3, 350 pp., hardback.

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