Notes on Archipelago: A Novel

Monique Roffey, Archipelago: A Novel (New York: Penguin, 2012); 360 pages; ISBN: 9780143122562 (paperback).

• February 2014

In Archipelago, Monique Roffey weaves a story from the fibers of events in her own life: the devastation of her brother’s home by a flood and her own travel in a small boat from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to the Panama Canal. The central line of Roffey’s novel, as it seems to be with any tale that focuses on “cathartic leaving,” is her description of the interstitial spaces between here and there. As it has been said many times before, it is about the journey, not the destination, and there is nothing that occurs in the pages of Roffey’s Archipelago that troubles that assertion. Despite Penguin Fiction’s presentation of the text with a pastel cover that shows in bas-relief the dramatis personae—father, daughter, and dog, in a genre scene that evokes a day sail around the lake—this novel is anything but that. It is dark, at times frightening, and holds the reader on the knife’s edge of an omnipresent dread for the fragile lives in this broken family that has fled to the sea in an attempt to heal its seemingly fatal wounds.

We learn early in the novel that the father, Gavin, is parenting his daughter, Océan, and caring for their dog Suzy as best he can in the face of a tragic natural disaster—a flood—that has shattered his family. The depths of their losses are revealed effectively and in agonizing fashion as the story unfolds. What we do know immediately is that the child, in spite of her namesake, has an intense fear of water that causes her to collapse into shrieking displays of terror when it rains. Both Gavin and Océan are revealed to be confounded by rainfall. Roffey writes, in a passage that is emblematic of the distinctive lyricism of her voice, “He clenches his fists, seized by a rage for this rain, for its spite, its ridicule of him. How could rain make him feel so-weak? From inside the house he can hear another sound, louder than the rain, the screaming of his little girl” (15). Rather than send Gavin and what is left of his family to the desert, where the rain becomes an infrequent visitor, Roffey has him turn to a sea voyage on a small sailboat to deal with his weakness and his daughter’s fear by total immersion in the very medium that causes their pain.

This is the heart of what I read as the masterful use of omnipresent threat to the lives of these characters whom we come to care for early in this story. Gavin owns the small sailing craft, Romany, that he has neglected, deeming it a distraction to the grown-up business of establishing himself as a husband, father, and professional. Not only has the craft descended into disrepair from lack of use, but his skill, no, mere competence, as a sailor remains in question throughout the text. We are never allowed to feel comfortable with Gavin’s seamanship, and late in the text he gives voice to this nagging, fundamental concern: “Is this what he planned on, quietly, wished for, silently, when they left Trinidad? To be out here, this much out of his depth?” (299). I found myself completely taken in by this aspect of Roffey’s work: the sheer irresponsibility of dragging a child onto a poorly equipped boat with an even more unprepared captain to sail on dangerous waters, threatening the remnants of a family that has already been savaged by the indomitable power of nature expressed through deadly water. Irresponsible. That is the term that I find most apropos of Gavin, the hapless child in a man’s body who wagers the life of his child in an effort to resolve his internal conflicts.

Here, Roffey establishes the most obvious, though perhaps not central, canonical literary lineage of her project—the conscious relationship her writing has with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. She situates Gavin as a type of “post-modern, amiable, mono-maniacal captain,” a sort of “Buddy-Ahab” who consciously references the desperate project of the master of the doomed Pequod as he and his daughter head to sea:

 

You won’t be bored in a moment, Starbuck.
Starbuck?
My chief mate, that’s you. I’ll tell you all about him later. (28)

One must necessarily pause here to meditate on the implication of a father, irreparably harmed by nature, positioning his six-year-old daughter as the first mate aboard the ill-fated vehicle of his self-destruction. This allusion to Melville and Moby-Dick is no passing concern; it is never far from this text, and very few pages go by without some reference. The question I found myself wrestling with is whether what I read as the author’s palpable admiration for Melville and the exhibition of her close reading of his novel may overstate the case and trend toward imitation rather than fresh improvisation on a canonical standard. Roffey sets a difficult and admirable task for her narrative: to humanize the monomaniacal purposiveness of Ahab—the sovereign of his vessel, supremely knowledgeable about all aspects of its operation, and the engineer of its dysfunction—through the character of Gavin, the spiritually wounded, physically weak, and borderline incompetent seaman who struggles with his craft’s positive and negative attributes. Single-minded pursuits at the expense of all else, even in the service of a perceived greater good, are thoroughly selfish, and I read Roffey as doing a fine job in never leaving the suspicion of Gavin’s motives, competence, and responsibility to care for his child far from the narrative. I found myself oftentimes reluctant to turn the page or cast my eyes to the next paragraph in morbid anticipation of the disaster that seems destined for this enterprise. This darkness is what most commends this text, and Roffey’s skill is sufficient to lean less heavily on the superstructure of the Pequod. The tiny ship Romany is of stern enough stuff to bear the burden of Gavin’s ambition.

Melville is only one of many canonical references in the text. The one more adeptly handled by Roffey is her decentering of Noah and his ark. Gavin, unlike Noah, takes to his boat too late. Unlike Noah, he builds his ark postdiluvium rather than before, and the narrative finds him seemingly never able to get in front of its own inevitable course. This is a fine novel, and one that challenges the reader in many positive ways with a sophisticated plot and distinctive narrative style. Like the wind and sea that threaten and propel Romany, Archipelago never allows the reader to be bored; there is too much that we fear can go wrong.

 

Michael Sawyer is completing a PhD in Africana studies and an MA in comparative literature at Brown University. He is currently Visiting Lecturer of Political Science and African and African-American Diaspora Studies at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.