Unlinking the chains in House of Ashes (Review of Monique’s Roffe’s new book)

SUN DOG S&S reissue final front cover

This review by Simon Lee appeared in Trinidad’s Guardian. Here are two excerpts, with a link to the full review below.

Bocas Lit Fest winner 2013 Monique Roffey makes a return to her thinly-disguised native land in her fourth novel, House of Ashes, published on July 27, the anniversary of the 1990 attempted coup.

For Trinidadians this “faction-cum-docudrama” will either sink into the amnesia of collective denial, or be welcomed as an earnest and imaginative attempt to provide the kind of analysis of the island’s legacy of violence and one of its two recent historical flashpoints, which the official inquiry failed to deliver, because as one of the novel’s main protagonists and the sole first person narrator, Minister for the Environment Aspasia Garland observes: “An inquiry would implicate everyone.”

Readers outside the Caribbean will negotiate a psycho-drama/political thriller with a structure suffocatingly locked down in a siege-with-hostages dynamic. But while House of Ashes flags up other established genres from dystopia to historical fiction and a long tradition of Caribbean fiction of political and personal violence (Carpentier’s In the Kingdom of this World, Explosion in a Cathedral, Alexis’ Compère General Soleil, Chauvet’s Amour, Colère, Folie, Danticat’s Farming of Bones, Marquez’s The General in his Labyrinth) it transgresses regional and diasporic boundaries.

Roffey inserts her revisionist text into the post 9/11 discourse on terrorism and extremist fundamentalism and compounds complexity with such other topical tropes as conservation, eco lit, governance, corruption, New Age mysticism, the psychopathology of the postcolonial Caribbean and its manifestations in dysfunctional families, failed parenting and the angry young dispossessed black man.

Roffey combines writing with teaching creative writing and at times House of Ashes reads like a series of intense assignments, which might have benefited from more rigorous editing.

Ashes is undoubtedly ambitious, permeated with more pain and desire to understand a homeland than Césaire’s Notebook, but emotional and historical proximity have their own limitations.

Césaire wrote from Paris, while Roffey wrote in Trinidad, not always successfully fictionalised as “Sans Amen,” (a pun on “land without men,” or even more loosely “a godless nation”?).

The decision to rebrand may have saved her from a fatwah and the umbrage of those who feel they’ve been maligned but did not grant her the control distance bestows.

House of Ashes (which recalls Haitian Emperor Henri Christophe’s motto—Je renais de mes cendres—I’m reborn from my ashes) is probably best read as multi-text, tending towards a meta text, a book of many tropes, some of which sit uncomfortably with others.

It examines postcoloniality; the failures of decolonisation and the legacy of slavery and indentureship; the caudillo or strongman/macho man charismatic leader; issues of power, violence, and governance in small island states afflicted with imposed global neoliberal economics and regional drug trafficking.

. . .

There is much in this long novel, possibly too much for a single text to embrace, to prompt readers to consider universal issues of power, inequality and “the chain of violence…which stretches across the world”. Locally, it focuses our attention on distant and recent history and the problems which have not been addressed since 1990, which have recoiled with the vengeance we all live with, or die by, right now.

For the full review go to http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/2014-07-29/unlinking-chains-house-ashes

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