Book review: Archipelago

FOR her third novel, native Trinidadian Monique Roffey returns to territory ­familiar to both her and her readers: the Caribbean. A slight detour occurred with her last book, a memoir, With The Kisses Of His Mouth, which detailed her own “sexual odyssey” and experimentation after a relationship break-up.

Archipelago

Monique Roffey

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Simon and Schuster, £12.99

Nothing sells like sex, so they say; I’d hazard a guess that memoir sold more than both her previous novels put together. But apart from a short, drunken visit to a brothel, this novel is largely devoid of sexual encounters.

Gavin Weald is a father to six-year-old Ocean, and husband to Claire. But Claire is absent at the start of this ­novel: one year previously, his home in Port of Spain on Trinidad was destroyed in a flood, and his baby son was killed. His wife hasn’t been able to cope in the aftermath and is living with her mother; Gavin is going through the motions of attending work, still in shock, and his little girl is still having nightmares that wake her up screaming.

So trauma is the point of departure for this novel, and it becomes a literal point of departure, too, as Gavin decides in a rash moment to leave the port in his boat, the Romany, and sail along the coast of Venezuela and Colombia, maybe even as far as the Galapagos, a childhood dream of his. He walks out of his job and sneaks away with Ocean and their dog, Suzy, simple as that. But almost immediately he feels out of his depth: the journey becomes a series of tests of his character, while readers may well be thinking that taking a traumatised six-year-old off on an “adventure” might not be the best way to cure her.

Grieving people aren’t always the wisest people, and Roffey, whose prose style is restrained and muscular, allows her protagonist to make mistakes of judgment without condemning him. A robber invades their boat while they are out and Gavin has to fight him off; a huge package of cocaine drifts by and for a moment he is tempted to keep it and enjoy a rich lifestyle on the ­illegal proceeds; they go deep-sea diving with an intriguing woman called Lulu; they visit slave huts and engage a new skipper, the feminine yet strong Phoebe; they battle storms and their own demons.

Roffey went on a real-life boat trip between December 2010 and April 2011 from Port of Spain to the Panama Canal, and the authenticity of her fictional narrative obviously comes from that experience. The only trouble with real-life experiences, though, is that it is often difficult to give them the momentum necessary for fiction. Roffey knows that she needs to be inventive, that she needs to dramatise as much as possible what can happen on a trip of that length, while also giving the journey itself some personal momentum: will Gavin go back to Trinidad? What will he do when he gets to the Galapagos? Will Claire recover? And what happened to the ghostly figure who appeared from time to time on the boat? What happened to the boat’s previous owner, that he should still feel the need to haunt it?

All of these questions point to a stirring narrative, and in places, it works. A lot of the time, though, her story dips and rises every bit as much as the Romany on her journey. Gavin’s own personal anguish, a man who feels he has lost almost everything, makes him dangerous to his daughter: his irresponsibility in taking her on this journey is brought home to him many times and she is even forced to face further terrible loss.

Roffey’s descriptions of the sea and landscape are more workmanlike than lyrical but there is no doubt that she captures the impotence of man in the face of the extremes of ­nature quite superbly. «