Passiontide by Monique Roffey - review by Marina Warner

Marina Warner

Redemption Song

Passiontide

By

Harvill Secker 368pp £18.99
 

A few years ago, a movement called #NousToutes staged a series of night-time guerrilla actions in Paris and began changing street names. Below the original plaque they posted one of an identical design that gave the name and date of a woman’s death. The inscription often added ‘murdered by a “compagnon” or “conjoint” or “ex-conjoint”’. The effect on passers-by like me was sobering and eye-opening. There were so many. In France, according to recent figures, 118 such deaths were recorded in 2022 (roughly one every three days). Societies count differently: between April 2022 and March 2023 the UK saw 242 domestic abuse-related deaths, including ninety-three cases of suspected suicide. 

Femicide is the topic of Monique Roffey’s ambitious, polyvocal new novel, Passiontide. It’s a ‘J’accuse’ critique of male violence in the Caribbean, a love letter to the islands’ women and a howl of frustration at the status quo. ‘Nobody here, high up, give too much of a damn about all the other women murdered,’ muses Sharleen Sellier, leading reporter on the main newspaper. ‘Black women? Indian women? Poor women? Working class? Nobody care … Women disappear, and then get found dead, again, and again. No one seem to bat an eye. Everybody numb.’ Many ghosts – of a murdered sister and a sex worker, among others – haunt the book. The voice of a victim, meanwhile, whispers from the site of her death. The only character to speak to us directly in the first person, she’s a quiet and intense presence, breaking through the hubbub of the busy and colourful foreground.

Roffey identifies as British and is a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, where she was born; her antecedents were of many different ethnicities; she lives in London, acts as an ambassador for Just Stop Oil and is a practising Buddhist. Passiontide is a pacy novel, swept along by her activist fervour. It dramatises a women’s rebellion in St Colibri, a thinly veiled version of Trinidad (‘colibri’ means hummingbird in Creole), and their occupation of the square in front of the seat of government in Port Isabella, a lightly disguised Port of Spain. Carnival is just over and Sora Tanaka, a steel pan player from Japan and a regular participant in High Mas, is found strangled under a giant, flowering, totemic cannonball tree on the edge of the savannah. The novel, far more expansive than Roffey’s acclaimed recent fairy tale The Mermaid of Black Conch, effectively ventriloquises police procedurals, detective fiction and misogynist clichés through a rotten mayor, a seedy inspector and a burnt-out forensic official (a white man disoriented in the postcolonial world). It begins by laying a trail and setting clues to mislead readers. The assailant bit Sora Tanka on the neck and the marks show that their upper front teeth are missing. We then meet a horrible nun who has dentures and I wondered: can she really be the culprit?

But Roffey conducts us into different territory and the whole enterprise swerves away from the murder mystery genre to a chorale of female voices. The novel can be placed in a lineage of female writing going back to Mary McCarthy’s The Group and including Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, fictions that set out to make the society of women together visible and audible. Each of Passiontide’s quartet of protagonists is strongly delineated, as if in a graphic novel, their names sharply chosen, cartoonish, witty, and they exemplify the ‘rainbow’ composition of the island. Besides the journalist Sharleen, there’s the sex worker Gigi Lala, the punk NGO organiser and campaigner Tara Kissoon, and Daisy Solomon, the prime minister’s paragon of a wife, a kind of Michelle Obama as she might have been. Their hashtag, #AmINext, goes viral as the quartet sets up an encampment; their efficiency and popularity confound the police, the authorities and their own menfolk. More and more women join in – battered wives, elders from the country, priestesses of the goddess Oshun (to whom a tall shrine is built and laden with offerings and mementos) – and even some good, fine boys, ‘Delta males’, who turn up to wash the women’s feet on Maundy Thursday. 

Roffey’s experiences of organising protest actions shape the insurgency here. Her account could not be more prescient, as students in the USA, the UK and elsewhere are occupying campuses. In Passiontide, however, the mood is carnivalesque and much of the action is make-believe. As the protesters make themselves heard, Passiontide takes on the tone of a YA novel written to empower girls, in the spirit of Pussy Riot, Madonna, Beyoncé or even Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. I’ve long believed in the ‘heroic optimism’ (Walter Benjamin’s phrase, taken up by Angela Carter) of fairy tales, and the speculations of Ursula K Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman filled me with a spirit of hope, but Passiontide’s feminist messianism strikes me as programmatic and even glib. Roffey is generous to a fault to everyone: her heroines are all sensitive and warm and confident; many of her male characters have endearing traits too. She is shuffling a card pack of role models and is careful to be fair all round. Legends come to life: Nanny of the Maroons, the famed resistance leader who mooned at the Spanish overlords, is reclaimed as #AmINext freedom fighters see off the police with the same mythic gesture. The women also take up a weapon which hasn’t figured in present-day struggles, as far as I know: as in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, they declare a sex strike, which they find hard, but it has the desired paralysing effect, especially on the PM. Punani power! 

The book’s title refers to the last two weeks of Lent, and the story unfolds with a liturgical rhythm, adding a sacramental feel to the story. The sense of a mystery play being enacted during a penitential time of year is heightened by the dead woman’s recurring voice. Roffey also tracks the internal thoughts of her leading characters and mixes them with the voices of a mass of secondary women and their various bosses and partners, providing a broad range of registers, from less informal English to spirited local demotic. It is one of the pleasures of Passiontide that it captures the islands – their sounds and sights (fruits, flowers, food and drink) – in supple and dynamic rhythms and a rich and unfamiliar (to my ears at least) lexicon. The audiobook isn’t yet on sale, but it will no doubt bring this out.

The Mermaid of Black Conch hewed closely to the magic realism of Latin America; the tale’s romance struck many readers’ hearts because the fantastic conventions it exploited – the worldwide lore of mermaids – placed it firmly in the sphere of fairy tale, the territory of ‘as if’. But that novel also showed us cruel villainy – past and present, male and female – close up. By contrast, the killers in Passiontide remain shadows and the story sits uneasily between agitprop and dream. Carnival is a moment of topsy-turvy, of the world turned upside down for a spell, of beggars made kings for a day, and Roffey ultimately accepts this depressing regulatory vision. Like an orator at the start of a demo, she unfurls a gorgeous, bright banner of hope, but then lets it drop and ends on a note of resignation, reconciling herself to things as they are and will remain.

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