My reading in 2013 took me both to the American West and to the Caribbean. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle takes place in Trinidad and explores some of my very favorite themes—the life of the expat, the other, and the impact of colonialism.
George and Sabine, a young married couple, move from England to Trinidad in the mid 1950s. Sabine thinks of their move as temporary–just for a few years–and while George agrees with her outwardly, he is immediately taken rapturously under the spell of Trinidad. He has no interest in leaving, even when violent, anti-colonial revolution comes, and ultimately, they never return to England. This broken promise of return takes a huge toll on their marriage, and the novel revolves around it. The structure of the novel is interesting—we meet George and Sabine later in life with grown children living out the end of their days in Trinidad in the first half of the book. But in the second half, we learn the story of their early years and marriage and discover why their relationship is so fractured, why the old Sabine is so bloated and resigned to her life, and the impact of the islands politics on both of them.
Simply viewed as a portrait of a marriage, George and Sabine are perhaps a tragic couple. But I found them fascinating because I think they represent the marriage of two types colonialist attitudes. In England, George is nothing—an ordinary white Englishman in a country of Englishmen. But in Trinidad, even if he is resented, he is always privileged. He has a good job compared to the locals, the opportunity to own land and build a big house, servants for his household, the pick of local women, and sort of untouchable respect with the authorities given to him by virtue of his white skin. He comes and he takes. He falls deeply and unquestioningly love with Trinidad and probably, mostly, his instantly elevated status. It’s no wonder he never wants to leave, even when anti-colonial revolutionary forces threaten his livelihood and his family. Racism, local politics, and cultural imperialism never cross his mind in a serious way—he is on top of the world.
Sabine comes to Trinidad as a beautiful young Englishwoman completely ignorant of racial inequality. She rides all over the island on her green bicycle and creates a scandal among the local people with her carefreeness and naivete. Soon her forays lead her to the city center where anti colonial political rallies are being held by the new leader, Eric Williams, and it vaguely dawns on her that she, as a white woman, is part of the problem. Leaving the rally, she says:
“Eric Williams’ words rang in my ears. Repudiate imperialism, colonialism. I felt like I was new, like had been shaken.”
And that only a white woman could be so carefree and oblivious to how others might see her because she is not and does not consider herself part of the local life. She befriends–or tries to befriend–her black neighbors and her maids, but they leave her fully functioning house and return to their dilapidated homes without basic amenities such as running water. They are never the same and her desire to help them only further defines their differences. She wants to go home to England:
“When we’d left Southampton eight months earlier I hadn’t bargained for this. I thought we were coming to a friendly, charming island. Palm trees. Beaches. I hadn’t bargained on sullen black women in the supermarket, on being laughed at on my bicycle, on ‘racism’, on snooty French Creoles, on seas infested with man o’ wars, or this Eric Williams and all that came with him.”
Ironically, George and Sabine’s children become what neither one of them are anymore. Their daughter, Pascale grows up to be a complete Creole, and marries a local man. Their son who grows up in boarding school in England becomes a proper, successful Englishman.
Trinidad itself is anthroporphized throughout the novels as the “green woman,” mostly from Sabine’s point of view. Sabine looks out her window and sees the green woman reclining, her breasts and hips the sensuous curves of the hills. The lush fauna is often described as being “lascivious” with garish, bold blossoms and “the landscape parading its fertility, a banquet of eccentric delicacies.” Sabine and George have a strong sexual relationship but after a while on the island, “I saw what George saw and knew, finally, that I had competition.” Trinidad is the other woman in their relationship. Later in Sabine’s old age and after failing to leave the island, she talks to the green woman often and finds herself “stuck” there as well:
“Sabine drifted out onto the grass, staring up at the hill above the house, the hip of the green woman, a woman lying on her side….A woman trapped in the mud, half sculpted from the sticky oil-clogged bedrock. She was also stuck. Half out, half in. Hip, breast, a long traveling arm. Half her face, half her bushy tangled hair…”
George, Sabine, and their marriage was a fascinating way to explore the politics and social implications of colonialism in Trinidad as well as the immigrant expat experience of fitting in neither here nor there. I love when authors tackle these big themes and found the book hard to put down.