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Dec 03

Book Review: House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

A militant religious group attempts to overthrow the Government of a small Caribbean Island.  The events of the novel are based on the attempted coup that took place in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990.

Should I read it?

Maybe.  I have mixed feelings.  Roffey has chosen to set the story on a fictional Caribbean Island, rather than provide a fictional account of the historical 1990 coup.  She did this due to fear of reprisal from the militant group that’s still active. Unfortunately this means that while the book is tense and gripping and provides an interesting post colonial critique on the Caribbean, there’s a big hole where a discussion of religion – in particular Islam – should be.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

If you’ve ever listened to the Shooting the Poo podcast or spoken to my mate Dave, you’ll know that I have a thing about Hollywood films based on true events.  No matter how well acted or directed the movie, I always experience a crushing sense of betrayal when I discover that the majority of the film, including a number of the pivotal scenes, were completely made-up.  You’d think I’d get over it and yet I keep asking myself the same question – why don’t these movies just tell the truth?*

The same question accompanied me as I read Monique Roffey’s Costa Book Award nominated novel, House of Ashes.  In this case, though, it’s not the lack of truth that’s the issue, if anything it’s Roffey’s fidelity to history that weighs the book down.

In the Author’s Note she tells us that her story, about a coup d’état on the fictional Caribbean Island of Sans Amen, may “bear some relation to an attempted coup which took place in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990.”  This is an understatement.  While the place names might have changed, and while characters like Ashes and Breeze and Aspasia Garland never existed, the historical beats – the year of the coup (1990), the takeover of the Government house and the island’s one television station, the number of militants that were involved (114), the length of the coup (6 days), the looting that happened in Port-au-Prince during the crisis and the beating and shooting of the Prime Minister for ordering the army to attack with full force – are all accurately portrayed in the novel.

This then raises the obvious question – why bother with an invented Caribbean island, why not just provide a historical, but fictional, account of the 1990 coup?

Danuta Kean provides the answer in her July 2014 interview with Monique Roffey for The Independent.  She observes that,

[Roffey’s] nerves are not those of a media newbie. Instead they reflect a writer playing with fire… 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.

Roffey then explains what prompted her to write the novel:

“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.

Faced with the conflicting need to bring attention to the 1990 coup, while also protecting herself and her family, I can understand why Roffey made the artistic decision to set her story in Sans Amen. It’s easy to argue that art should transcend issues of life and death.  History is littered with creative-types who’ve endangered their lives for their work.  But when faced with potential death threats, I can absolutely appreciate why common sense might prevail.

In anycase I doubt Roffey believes that she’s comprised her work by changing place names and inventing characters.  The focus of House of Ashes is the message rather than the historical truth.  As she states in her Author’s Note, “the events [detailed in the novel] may have much in common with coups d’état in other parts of the world, for example Latin America, Europe or Africa.  While on the decline, the coup remains a common form of power change in the world.”  And in line with that sentiment, the novel provides an interesting post-colonial critique, exploring the bad habits left over by colonial powers and the abuse of innocence, especially young, uneducated men living in poverty and looking for meaning and sense in their lives.

Beyond the themes of the novel, the narrative is tense, gripping and confronting.  Roffey does an excellent job in detailing the adrenalin charged horror of the first moments of the coup and the mix of boredom, fear and loss of dignity that settles in once the food runs out and a corner of the room becomes a latrine.

Throughout it all, though, the ghost of the 1990 coup lingers.  While it’s clear that the militants overthrowing the Robinson Government are religious, Roffey never uses the words Islam or Muslim to describe their faith.  The fact that Roffey mutes this element means that there’s this gaping hole in the novel that’s never adequately explored.  It’s sad because I would have loved to have seen Roffey apply her keen insight on the faith that motivated the militants.

Unlike a Hollywood film, Roffey wants to give us a true accounting of what happened in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990 and why.  However, genuine fear of reprisal means that what could have been a powerful and relevant novel never fully comes together.  It’s not an entirely hollow reading experience, but I do wish I lived in a time where art wasn’t sometimes required to distance itself from the truth.

* Yes, I know reality and history are messy and don’t lend themselves to the neat narrative beats of a movie.  But that’s what documentaries are for.

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