It’s always fascinating when an author writes about wildly different subjects from book to book. The last novel by Monique Roffey I read was “House of Ashes” which was a devastatingly intense and complex account of a coup which takes place on a fictional Caribbean island. Her new novel “The Tryst” focuses on a short, all-consuming affair between a married couple and a mysterious woman. The result is a dynamic look at the dangerously hazy borderline between the erotic imagination and real-life sexual exploits. In particular, it prompts us to wonder about the role sexual fantasy plays in long-term relationships. Should such impulses be voiced or acted upon? If so, will our partner be repulsed, offended, intrigued or titillated? Or, if these impulses are kept private or repressed what are the consequences? It’s a tricky and delicate subject matter as many couples privately struggle with issues of sex. Roffey offers fascinating insights with this outrageously imaginative tale of untamed lust and a fantasy that quickly turns into a nightmare.

Bill and Jane have been together many years and fallen into familiar routines. Although both of them have healthy sexual appetites, passion has never been an element of their marriage. Jane harbors sexual fantasies about random men while Bill is left perpetually pining for his wife who won’t engage with him in the bedroom. Jane tragically feels that "I was trapped inside a monogamous world, inside my marriage, and inside myself." When they are out drinking one evening they encounter Lilah, a strange woman of small stature who possesses great allure and a boisterous attitude. Soon all three of them are consumed with sexual desire and they embark on an escapade, but each believes they are in full control of the situation. The narrative switches between each character’s perspective showing how each of them frequently misinterprets the motives and responses of the others. This makes a really interesting portrait of a sexual encounter where so much is based on signals which can be horrendously misinterpreted. It also poignantly shows how the outcome of realizing sexual fantasies is far different from how we imagined. Lilah is not what she seems and the plot buzzes with scenes which are rampantly sensual and fantastical. The riotous and explicit encounter between these three unhinges them and radically transforms them all forever.

Several years ago I read George Bataille’s influential and wickedly perverse bonk-fest “Story of the Eye” for the first time. It left me with a lot of mixed feelings. Roffey’s characters are just as willfully perverse as Bataille’s – especially Lilah who brags "An old Jesuit priest taught me how to touch cock." It’s interesting how Roffey gives an alternative view of a couple exploring their untamed desires within a much more domestic setting. Also, as Bataille uses a lot of egg imagery, so does Roffey invoke this potent symbol where Jane traditionally purchases a decorated egg for her husband as an ironic gift. She muses: "I wasn't sure if I didn't want children, or didn't want children with Bill. Each egg I gave Bill made me question this more. I saw the eggs as potent reminders of this failure on my part." Lilah takes these gifts and uses them in a suitably depraved way. Where Bataille’s book felt at times unrelentingly debauched without any specific purpose, Roffey is much more focused in her depiction of whether a marriage can survive a full-scale journey into the uncharted landscape of the sexual imagination. This book is also very much an entertaining story about demonic elemental forces wreaking havoc in our humdrum reality.

I found it really moving how Roffey shows her characters’ tentative relationship with their sexual fantasies. People so often find it difficult to know how to manage desire. In particular, Jane is frequently overwhelmed and consumed by her sexual fantasies but seems so hesitant about acting upon them or admitting them to her husband. In one section when relating her unconscious desires she reflects that "The dreams happened of their own accord, tumbling out on the backs of other dreams. I would wake in another man's arms, my husband inches from me, his body big and warm." That sense of having another person so physically nearby, but psychologically so far away is touching and powerfully realized. Sex is difficult. Always. “The Tryst” robustly embraces the challenge of looking at it in all its complexities. It’s also a novel with a surprisingly hopeful message – at least, it’s hopeful for everyone except for the couple’s unfortunate tomcat named Choo Choo.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMonique Roffey
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“If words and prayers had no effect, then it was time to use the body.”

On the fictional island of Sans Amen in the Caribbean there is a small commune of men organized by a charismatic leader who are fed up with the current government. They believe the democratically elected prime minister is corrupt and they are ready to take action. Armed with smuggled weaponry, they split into groups to raid the imposing House which is the seat of government and also the local television station. A bookish, thoughtful man named Ashes is among them for complicated personal reasons. With head-spinning intensity, we follow him as the approximately one hundred men (many of whom are boys under eighteen) sneak up to the House with guns and storm inside shooting guards and civilians as they go. The prime minister and heads of state are seized. “House of Ashes” depicts a coup d'état. It's terrifying. With it's complicated and harrowing history of colonialism, this is something which has occurred frequently to governments in the Caribbean. On the island of Haiti alone the government has been overthrown in this way twenty-five times since 1806. This history of frequent violent upheaval is summarized by a character at one point in the novel: “‘Is like we Caribbean people mess up real good every time we try this thing called revolution… Is like it too simple. Or like it too good to be true. Every time the liberators become oppressors.’” When people are oppressed, feel powerless and think that there can be no more debate things get violent.

I first read Monique Roffey's novel “The White Woman on the Green Bicycle” years ago and was struck by the delicate way she interlaces the personal with the political in her storytelling. In this new novel she expertly does the same, but focuses on one big violent political event and the consequences of such calamitous action. Many of the boys involved come from impoverished backgrounds and are easily swayed by the didactic teachings of the commune's Leader. They are banded together through desperation more than natural kinship which has created a tight and particular kind of camaraderie: “They weren’t friends; they weren’t associates or colleagues either; they were brothers.” The novel focuses particularly on one boy nicknamed Breeze who has street smarts but doesn't understand what a prime minister is. The story switches perspectives between Ashes who storms the government without even knowing how to load a gun and Aspartame Garland, a female minister for environmental affairs. Over a period of six days the insurgents inhabit the House surrounded by the stalwart army outside.

Roffey balances her story showing with equal validity the perspectives of a variety of people involved from the strong-willed prime minister to a passionate and experienced military revolutionary named Greg Mason who believes “Money is power; corporations are the new colonisers.” Having left his wife and children behind to join in the insurgency, Ashes has deep dilemmas about the meaning of this action. Through this extreme event people's true nature's emerge with all their complicated pasts and core beliefs: “In this madhouse everyone was showing himself or herself.” One character who shows tremendous spirit and arrives in the narrative like a rocket is a cleaning lady named Mrs Gonzales. She demonstrates a memorable tenacity and acts as a voice of a common person who works hard and isn't deluded by grandiose visions of utopian ideology.

The leatherback sea turtle which returns to Sans Amen to lay its eggs takes on a symbolic value in the novel

The leatherback sea turtle which returns to Sans Amen to lay its eggs takes on a symbolic value in the novel

Although the stories of the characters involved are engagingly particular and personal, Roffey is skilful in incorporating the larger political and historical issues which have built up to this hostile takeover. “When the colonisers left, a popular people’s government were voted in and for almost thirty years they had simply replicated the mistakes and greed of the British. It was as if they had caught something, like a flu or a cold, except the thing they caught was corruption.” The oppressive rule of colonisers has created a legacy of distrust and greed. Above the great government House created under Queen Victoria's reign hangs a great dragon. Ashes hilariously remarks: “The Queen and the dragon were some kind of team.” The individuals involved in this violent uprising and the government officials who are captured are all motivated by particular systems of thought and inherited ideas which influence their actions. There is the striking observation that “Politics was about darkness, about reaction, about… ego. It had something to do with a blindness rather than seeing.” A successful politician might triumph more from what they tactically don't know than what they do. There is also the insidious suggestion that darker/sinister motives from particular people have influenced this revolution. Roffey shows the full complexity of such a dramatic societal change.

“House of Ashes” portrays in vivid detail and with heart-racing intensity the bloody consequences of what a coup d'état must feel like. There is sheer physical strain of enduring depravation and terror for multiple days. Emotions run high as the body is run down. I was totally gripped and nervous to know what the outcome would be. The novel builds to a climactic conclusion for the revolution and the plays out further towards a surprising ending that will make you want to quickly read on till the last page. This is a book that makes an impact upon you subconsciously so that it's cumulative meaning is only felt when you've put it down.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMonique Roffey