House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

To borrow the title of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, the protagonist of Roffey’s fourth fiction book is every inch the reluctant fundamentalist. Ashes, a mild, pious scholar, finds himself swept up in the bloody carnival of a coup d’état gone terribly wrong: one that leaves him, gun-toting and terrified, in the ransacked House of Power of fictitious Caribbean island, Sans Amen. Roffey’s courageous take on the events of T & T’s 1990 attempted coup reads with a sense of suspended incredulity at its own unbelievably murky waters. Seldom has there been this level of vigorous creative interpretation with one of our nation’s most harrowing – and still, least resolved – psychological traumas. In this novel, no one, from reckless politicians to ideologically motivated terrorists, escapes criticism, and no one is cast as blameless in Sans Amen’s ledger of sins.

In our Christmas newsletter last year, we eagerly endorsed Monique’s newest novel for lovers of politically thrilling, intriguing reads; Trinbagonians who won’t shy away from an uneasy analysis of their own country; those who’ve read and appreciated Raoul Pantin’s Days of Wrath. The work has gone on to reap juried acclaim, earning spots on both the 2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist and the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature longlist.

A telling exchange between Minister for the Environment, Aspasia Garland, and Breeze, the weapon-wielding youth holding her hostage, poignantly underscores one of the novel’s many divides in privilege and power. Aspasia wonders, regarding Breeze with a medley of dread and sympathy,

“about the size of this young boy’s world. Had he ever swum in the sea along the north coast of his own island? Had an adult ever taken him over the mountains to get to the sea? If he was from the slums in the east of the City of Silk, there was no reason he should know about, let alone care about sea creatures.”

Many moments of sensitive portrayal, of the plights of government ministers and ghetto insurrectionists in equal measure, mark the trajectory of House of Ashes, a novel that stands proudly in the cache of Roffey’s brave storytelling.