5th Oct 2012
Archipelago by Monique Roffey
When a flash flood destroys his home and his family, Gavin and his little daughter Ocean are left traumatised. Gavin – constrained by his office job and unable to cope any more with his listless and suffering daughter who has been left without a mother – acts on impulse. He packs up Ocean and Suzy the dog onto his old boat, The Romany, and sails away, heading west from their Trinidad home towards the Dutch Islands, Panama and the Galapagos beyond.
You have to slightly suspend your disbelief as Gavin and his family live off a seemingly endless supply of money whose source is never really explained, but apart from that this is a wonderful novel: a real slow-burner, so well-crafted you never quite realise how much you care about the characters until something appalling happens to them.
The overall atmosphere of the book matches its content. Reading it feels like drifting along a balmy sea, and the storms that occasionally flare into Gavin and Ocean’s lives have a major impact on how you read the book. Some chapters I raced through, some took days, as I slowly digested each paragraph. Facts about the initial flood that led to Gavin’s decision to flee are teased out as the sea works its magic on his subconscious and he slowly comes to terms with his incredibly tragic loss. I would have tissues on standby for parts: Roffey doesn’t spare the punches with what she inflicts on her characters. This book also makes you think about your place in the world: as Gavin learns about the different animals and the history of the various islands he encounters, his anger at human beings’ impact grows all the while.
If Roffrey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was a love letter to Trinidad, this is an equally passionate love letter to the sea. Roffey’s writing is atmospheric yet also restrained. She avoids simile-studded platitudes but the descriptions of how it feels to be surrounded by water are just as powerful as any in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Parts of this book cite Moby Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and there is also a secondary theme of aging and the change that aging brings that probes deeply into man’s relationship with himself, as well as his relationship with nature.
The characters in this book, although few, are also a joy, especially Ocean the little girl, obsessed with her Snoopy sunglasses and Captain Abram, and Suzy the trusty and inquisitive dog. There is one section where Gavin goes a little off-piste and visits a brothel that makes for incredibly uncomfortable reading, sitting ill as it does with the impression built up of him over the rest of the book – a basically good man who has suffered great tragedy. But other than this slight fillip, this is an enjoyable and a thought-provoking book, and the night after finishing I found myself still thinking about the sea.
Other recommended reading: The White Woman of the Green Bicycle is less well-structured, but just as beautiful written.