Monique Roffey looks nervous. It is the first time the author has given a newspaper interview, she says – an odd oversight in a career that has produced six novels, including the Orange-shortlisted The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, and one explosive memoir, With the Kisses of his Mouth.
Her nerves are not those of a media newbie. Instead they reflect a writer playing with fire. Her latest novel, The House of Ashes, is inspired loosely by an uprising that took place in Trinidad in 1990. As we head to our table on the terrace at the BFI café on London’s South Bank, she says: “I need to be careful.”
She glances around as if we are being watched. I look around too. Nervousness is infectious. Her paranoia is reasonable. The religious group behind the 1990 uprising remains active. She has no desire to be a female Salman Rushdie. But given these sensitivities why on earth did she write the book?
“I thought I was crazy to even contemplate writing about it,” she admits. A year was spent talking it over with her psychoanalyst. What pushed the idea off the couch and on to the page was a Commission of Inquiry held in 2011. Its report was delivered in March 2012 and after that the words flew out of her. “Writing wasn’t the hard part,” she says.
Roffey obscures the connection between inspiration and novel by omitting details: the religion followed by the revolutionaries is never named, nor is the leader. Place names are changed: Trinidad becomes Sans Amen and Port of Spain the City of Silk. A short author’s note acknowledges that the attempted coup that backfires in the book “bears some relation” to what happened in Trinidad. But it also claims it reflects what happens in coups around the world.
I wonder how much credence those affected by the coup would place on such nuance. Instead, abstruse detail weakens the novel’s power and does not reflect Roffey’s deserved reputation for courage. Previous books have not flinched from tackling issues of alienation and race, while her 2011 memoir doggedly exposed her sexual experimentation in the wake of a painful break up.
Roffey is not thinking of herself. Born in Trinidad to a mixed British and Mediterranean heritage, she has family there still and spends half the year on the island. But extremists looking for bait should look elsewhere: The House of Ashes is a sympathetic and fresh look at what motivates young men to become radicalised. Parents and government are indicted for leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
Three characters drive the action: gentle and bookish Ashes, swept along by the rhetoric of the group, is left horrified by the violence; government minister and hostage Aspasia Garland, who recognises the role of family and government in the tragedy; and trigger-happy Breeze, forced to confront his past. The violence portrayed is shocking, because it is realistic rather than a plot device. The terror of the hostage takers is as palpable as that of the hostages.
Dressed in pale denim shirt and jeans, her legs twisted into a knot, Roffey observes: “I think that a male writer would make different connections.” She chooses her words carefully. Occasionally glancing across the terrace, she repeatedly says: “Oh there is so much more I could say about this.” It is as if her novelist sensibility is constrained by the format of giving a newspaper interview.
“I wouldn’t usually gender myself as a writer,” she begins, pauses, and I wonder – not for the first time in the course of our interview – if she will complete the thought. She looks back at me and continues in earnest: “I was aware when I was writing this book that there were certain things I was interested in – such as the pregnant woman who was shot – which perhaps a male writer wouldn’t have picked up.”
Paternalistic power, in the shape of a prime minister willing to die to stop the revolutionaries, is polarised against maternal compassion, in the shape of Aspasia, who blames the boys’ fervour on poor parenting and corrupt government. However, when I point this out to Roffey, she adds that she also wanted to deal with society’s expectations for young men.
She uses the Parsifal legend to illustrate her argument and points to her groin in reference to a supposed wounding of masculinity that has encouraged youth to look to radicalised religion. “There is that whole warrior thing that men are these days denied,” she claims. “We don’t have that archetype which men crave for. Young men crave to get on a horse, shoot a gun… that is what it is triggering this.
They would go and fight anywhere, for anything.” I am not sure I follow her argument, which involves gender stereotypes that I don’t accept.
It is the first time I find myself questioning her view of gender. Later, when discussing sex writing, she says that men don’t write about sex because “male sexuality is so completely different ,… Most men don’t get enough of what they want. They probably want to get sex five times a day with more than one woman. Monogamy limits the average man.” In contrast, she adds, “vanilla heterosexual monogamy” seems to be a “prevalent demand” among women.
It’s a curious claim from a woman whose sexual appetite has been far from vanilla in the nine years since she hit 40.
She is on stronger ground discussing the post- colonial legacy. “When the colonialists left, one of the biggest things they left behind was two-party government,” she explains. Two-party systems fail to take into account the racial divisions within many post-colonial societies, Roffey believes. As a result, votes are given according to tribal loyalty rather than political competence. This, she declares, has been a recipe for bad governance and corruption.
“People have said to me that it would have been naive to dismantle [that system], and I agree. But it’s 60 years since the colonialists left and the firstpast- the-post system has split our society along racial lines.”
Despite her strong engagement in the political life of the Caribbean, she says her real desire is to write about love and she plans to write about sex again – though as a novel rather than memoir. Will this be the subject of her next novel? She won’t say. It will be out next year and it will be set in the UK, is all she will confirm. It is the first time she has been coy with me, and we both laugh, gathering up our things before we head in separate directions.