“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.
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.