Archipelago, By Monique Roffey

All at sea in an ocean of significance
  • @Holly_bops

One night, the rains came and they flooded Gavin's home in Trinidad, tearing apart his family. The exact nature of the tragedy is only slowly revealed, but Gavin feels that he has to get his six-year-old daughter, Océan, to stop screaming whenever it rains. He also wants to leave his deadening desk job, and so they take to the seas in his old boat with his old dog, for a voyage of – you guessed it – discovery, around the archipelagos between Trinidad and the Galapagos, and into their own grief.

Along the way are neatly lined-up challenges and hurdles. There's danger: pirates, accidents, random parcels of cocaine and more dramatic weather to be, well, weathered. Sometimes these scenes of danger quicken your reading; sometimes they feel stagey. There are encounters with enigmatic strangers, and with women who teach Gavin about sex, or about being brave. (Monique Roffey indulges her characters in some pretty saggy gender stereotypes. Gavin is incredulous that a woman could be "small and pretty" but also "a sailor ... physically strong-looking"; Océan boringly adores all things pink.)

Drawing on the Trinidad-born Roffey's own trip along the same route, Archipelago is peppered with sharp-eyed observations on the impact of tourism on Caribbean islands. Roffey does somewhat score an own-goal here, though: she so vividly paints scenes of natural beauty that they do the work of a thousand tourist websites, and descriptions of flamingos, of snorkelling in coral reefs and swimming with dolphins will have your fingers itching to Google "flights to Curacao". There are also moments of almost mythological significance, describing the powerful call of the sea on a man's soul.

Basically, Archipelago is satisfying as an emotional and literal journey-by-numbers narrative. Roffey's prose is simple, clear, colloquial. At its best, this is engagingly frank, but at worst, it's lazy. Some phrases feel hackneyed ("How he loved the sea as a younger man; the sea was his first mistress."), while you wonder how others got past an editor: "All around them is glittering sea, and crazy speeding fish and the sun like a golden planet". Really? "Golden planet" seemed the best simile for the Sun? There's a lot of mild self-revelation on this voyage, but little startling insight; a lot of sparkling seas, but little sparkling prose.

Simon & Schuster £12.99