Published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster.
One day, Gavin Weald uproots himself from the staid, reassuringly placid existence he’s meted out for himself and his six year old daughter, Océan, and quite literally takes to the sea. Companioned by their loyal hound, Suzy, and enough furtively-acquired supplies to see them well out of Port of Spain waters, they set sail on Gavin’s old Danish boat, Romany, to visit the Venezuelan Los Roques archipelago. Gavin once frolicked there in his heyday, before the advent of his family, before the coming of the great brown flood waters that devastated his home and its now distressed, fragile occupants. Other Weald family members will not be making the trip with them. Each precarious marker of the voyage out is signalled by Gavin’s fear, his nauseous uncertainty over where the right path might lie. As he shepherds this most unlikely of crews across the startlingly blue seas for which his daughter is named, he is reminded that there is a shape to his oldest of dreams that he scarcely registers, one that the sea will send surging to the fore.
Overweight, beset by painful psoriasis and more than his fair share of daily nightmares, Gavin Weald resembles no archetypal moulds for an adventurer-hero. Before he sneaks Romany out of the TTSA harbour, the burden of his aging body weighs heavily on him, so disparate from the younger, fitter, carousing image of his youth. Soon after he and Océan slip the bonds of Trinidadian waters, though, Gavin feels that settled knowing of the sea stir in his bones.
“The sea makes him feel lonely and yet so very much himself; she makes him gather himself up, a self which has vanished some time ago into the element of air. Overnight, the fluid in his veins is catching up with the fluid and the rhythms of the sea; he feels like the sea appears, placid, powerful.”
For all of our protagonist’s uncertainty, his prevarications on both dry land and shifting water, the quiet splendour of Roffey’s characterization means that we want no other guide for our travels. Gavin is less overtly reassuring than he is persistently earnest, a sentiment that earns him further unwarranted harshness from life, yes, but also visits upon him moments of sublime grace, such as the raw pleasure of seeing Océan snorkel for the first time. Everyone, the author subtly reminds us with each sea-swell and map-charting, can face bold and complicated terrain. Peregrinations of discovery are not merely for the flat-chested or unflinching.
Islands are everywhere in this stunningly rendered novel, reminding or teaching us anew about our individual selves against their history-mired backdrops. The long arm of human injustice, greed and excess runs on no shorter a leash here, as Gavin, Océan and Suzy dock in multiple ports to discover. Beach-combing through the sea’s washed up treasures on one of the Los Roques islands, Gavin muses on the disturbing assortment of plastic debris and shattered coral, thinking, too, of how oil swallows up life around them, oil destroying nature. Father, daughter and dog confront the garish spectacle of cruise liners; the beguilingly pink slave huts at Bonaire; the uneasy history that built the Panama Canal, with equal parts wonderment, dread and curiosity. Nothing seems clear about human progress: it all glimmers, like the Sea Empress tourist ship, “grotesque and a spectacle in its own right.”
We’re taught in some of our earliest creative writing classes that one of the great bankable conflicts worth exploring in both fiction and non- is Man’s relationship, and struggle, with the environment. The novel mines this persistently (and not necessarily in the ways you’d expect, either), but it also reveals in both frustrating and gleeful detail what we learn about ourselves in the process. The sea cradles the real possibility of a different life for Gavin and his daughter, bound up in which is the re-scripting of their damaged intimacy. Water of one sort has the potential to heal, if not completely, then life-sustainingly, the rupture caused by water of another chaotic provenance.
“It feels like he and Océan have blended. They have softened in themselves and with each other; the sea has dissolved them, and they are suppler in their skin. They have been disappeared for weeks now, and they are sun-henna brown […] He didn’t expect to feel so lost in his own escape; a new space has opened up, an ocean.”
This wilful act of disappearance reminds or encourages the reader of what solace and redemption there might be in unmooring. If no-one is sympathetic to your plight, the sea will have you, but one cannot bargain with her for support or guidance. Gavin marks every leg of his journey with unlooked-for allegiances of varying intensity, with keen observations of the shifting natural landscapes around him. Reflecting on South America’s bloody history of invasion, torture and revolt, he muses that “Recovery takes time; it is the story of the still emerging Caribbean.” The land aches for the erasure of trauma, much as the individual does: Roffey stresses here that neither on regional nor personal fronts can rooted suffering be brushed away, not without investigation and the watchful calendar’s cycle.
Archipelago’s trajectory reminds the reader in both subtle and unapologetic flourishes that through our best-laid plans for Nature, Nature herself persists. The novel is replete with achingly beautiful descriptions of the world that frames these seafarers. Even in the midst of tantalizing doubt, of crippling loneliness, Gavin cannot but soak it in, the “skies… reflecting sea reflecting sky reflecting sea; this world is so electric in its shades of blue…”. Storm weather holds its own relentless magic, at once spellbinding and cautionary:
“That evening the sky pinks over. Grey and indigo clouds stay still in the sky like towering puffs of cream, like staircases made of foam. Forks of lightning appear miles away, silent delicate veins of gold, fizzing down from the clouds.”
The further Gavin, Océan and Suzy plot their course, the more they allow themselves to drift into the arbitrary shelter that Nature provides, learning in increments that the best harbours can turn hollow, learning, also, that there is refuge in unexpected places. This hard-won reassurance beats at the maritime heart of Archipelago: that the perilous journey, no matter how hurricane-beset, finds its own natural way of leading you back to yourself.
A marginally shorter version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian’s inaugural Sunday Arts Section on August 5th, 2012. You can view it here.
To read my impressions of Roffey’s novel prior to its launch, you can check out my Bocas 2012 coverage of her discussion with Rivka Galchen and Anita Sethi, here.