Trinidadian-born author Monique Roffey’s fourth novel, House of Ashes, is a fictionalised retelling of a botched 1990 coup attempt by Muslim organisation Jamaat al Muslimeen. The event is largely forgotten, even unknown, outside of the island of Roffey’s birth. However, in its exploration of how and why the disaffected become radicalised, it is not difficult to see beyond the novel’s local context and to recognise the wider global concerns addressed within its pages.
The novel is set in the fictional City of Silk, capital of the equally fictional Caribbean island of Sans Amen. The narrative begins with the simultaneous storming of the parliament building – “The House of Power” – and, off-stage, of the country’s television station. As things quickly start to go wrong for the besiegers, the unfolding horror inside the parliament provides a backdrop to the novel’s exploration of the post-colonial legacy, political self-interest, and the nature of true power and agency.
Some of the characters are perhaps a little “stock” – the fundamentally decent but naive idealist, the in-it-for-all-the-right-reasons female politician fighting the good fight against male political hegemony and corruption, the disengaged youth ripe for radicalisation – but they are vividly and compellingly rendered. Ashes, a gentle soul who “looked like a man who might work in a library” is the most interesting and, arguably, the most tragic. Compelled to act in memory of his older brother River who was gunned down by government forces after a previous coup attempt decades earlier, Ashes comes to realise, as the siege progresses, that “they had made a terrible mistake”. Even at this point though, Ashes biggest concern remains that “his wife Jade might never speak to him again”. Only later, as the siege nears its denouement, do the terrible consequences of his involvement begin to dawn.
Slightly less engaging is the hostage Aspasia Garland, government Minister for the Environment. Perhaps it’s the fact that the narrative switches from third to first person during her sections of the novel, or perhaps it’s because she is the principal vehicle for the novel’s slightly too didactic feminist message, but her chapters seem to lack the danger and pathos of those pages focalised through Ashes. All empathy and idealism, Aspasia sees her own son in many of the boy soldiers and thinks she recognises the root cause of their radicalisation: “it started at home, with bad fathering, bad mothering, with a lack of love”.
One of the boys in particular speaks to Aspasia’s maternal instincts. Breeze, a common street criminal saved from prison by “The Leader”, is transformed over the course of the siege, his ignorance (and innocence) laid bare. Breeze, in turn, focalises the final few chapters, which bring the narrative forward to the present day. Despite his (somewhat unlikely) transformation from gun-toting teen revolutionary to impassioned turtle conservationist (the legacy of his interaction with Aspasia during the siege), Breeze can’t escape the guilt. Eventually, he seeks out the former Prime Minister, himself scarred (both physically and mentally) from his period of captivity during the siege. Expecting redemption, Breeze finds only condemnation: “You and your kind … were part of things. Big things. A chain of events stretching back … 1990. Not so long ago. Then 9/11. Now it’s 2013.”
This awareness of the bigger picture, the global significance of local events, is the novel’s strength. Although the coup attempt was a local (and indeed little known or remembered) event, its wider significance is never far away. The novel may be set in 1990, but it is written with a 21st century sensibility, with an awareness of jihad and terrorism, of radicalisation and desert training camps. Roffey’s novel reminds us that the world we know today did not begin with 9/11. House of Ashes may have a Caribbean setting but, in its exploration of the post-colonial legacy and the roots of radicalism, it has a global reach.