“His mother had named him Ashes and this, she said, was because she had a feeling about him, when he was first born, that he would live and die many times during this one life, and always survive from the ashes of himself.”- Monique Roffey, House of Ashes
And so he does, so he does.
As a former hostage myself, I’m not entirely comfortable with writer Monique Roffey’s obvious empathy with and sympathy for some of the young men involved in Trinidad’s infamous 1990 attempted coup as disclosed in her new novel, House of Ashes.
But I agree with her (I’ve had the same thought) that the absence of fathers—most of those young men, some still in their teens, came from poor, single mother homes—and lack of love resulted in a kind of crookedness and moral apathy.
Roffey writes a fictional account of that notorious 1990 event in House Of Ashes which she set in the imaginary Caribbean island of Sans Amen with its capital, The City of Silk.
Among other things, Roffey notes that the hopes and dreams of a post-Indpendence Sans Amen generation were quickly defiled by political corruption (sounds familiar?). She also suggests that the coup itself meant political treachery was afoot.
The novel begins one late July afternoon with a group of men and boys in a religious commune (Islam is never mentioned) going through their prayer rituals, following the example of the charismatic figure they call The Leader, who will soon lead them in an armed invasion of a sitting session of the island’s Parliament and lone television station.
The assault on what is called the House of Power is as chaotic and it is horrific. People, including a defenceless woman, are shot and killed. The prime minister is roughed up, his hands fastened tightly behind his back, his pants dropped.
Hal, the name of the leader of the assault group on the House of Power, is in touch with The Leader at the TV station via a walkie-talkie.
But suddenly, unexpectedly, the Sans Amen army responds by shooting up both the House of Power and the TV station.
The prime minister, with a gun to his head, is told by Hal to order the attacking soldiers to cease and desist. Instead, taking his life in his hands, the prime minister shouts into the walkie-talkie: “These men are murderers! Attack with full force!” (The well-known words first uttered by then Prime Minister ANR Robinson, now deceased, in similar circumstances during the 1990 attempted coup).
He is shot in the leg and roughed up some more. But the army carries out his order. The insurgents are soon pinned down, the insurgency stuck before it can go any further...
The hostages in the House of Power include two female government ministers who are, naturally, both terrified by this violent assault.
Roffey also notes, and this is not fiction, that not a single citizen of the island lent the insurgents a hand. Instead some of them took advantage of the preoccupied security forces to loot and vandalise the city.
This nightmare story is re-told by Roffey largely through the eyes of two young men, Breeze, who is about 14, and Ashes, who is in his mid-30s, and also from the point of view of the female cabinet minister, Aspasia Garland, who suffers all the terrors of being held hostage for six days.
Curiously enough, to me the most REAL character in this novel of insane violence, death and redemption is Mrs Cynthia Gonzales, a House of Power cleaning woman who hides herself in a broom cupboard for two days and two nights before emerging only to be instantly enraged when she enters the main chamber of the House and sees the wreckage there:
“Allyuh damn stupid fools. Why you do this, eh? Why?”
When Hal tells her the insurgents were out to “liberate the people of the City of Silk who are oppressed”, Mrs Gonzales responds: “Who is oppressed?”
“You!” Hal says.
“Mrs Gonzales...steupsed at the ridiculousness of this idea.”
She declared that her former husband cuffed her down once “and I end up in hospital...That man now long dead. No man go oppress me again... I doh need no crazy bunch of boys with guns to come inside here on my behalf. I have job, home, good health, family. You mad or what?”
Eventually, after days of tense negotiations, the prime minister is released, followed by the other hostages and the insurgents lay down their arms and surrender to the army.
What follows next is truly fictitious. Let’s just say an original act of insanity—a violent attempted coup by a small band of insurgents who are soon easily outnumbered and outgunned—is compounded by another fatally insane act, which, I don’t doubt, many Trinidadians would have applauded.
The novel then jumps forward 23 years and ends with a surprising twist.
This is a well-written tale, rich in imagination and with some very insightful moments. Ms Roffey, who won the 2013 OCM Bocas Caribbean Literature award for her novel, Archipelago, should expect even more kudos for another laudable piece of literary work which, mark my word, is likely to be a best-seller.