Archipelago: A Novel

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9780143122562: Archipelago: A Novel

A mesmerizing tale of a father and daughter’s sailing adventure from Trinidad to the Galapagos Islands, winner of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and finalist for the 2014 Orion Book Award
 

Monique Roffey, vibrant new voice in Caribbean fiction and author of the Orange Prize finalist The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, returns with Archipelago, a new novel that is a journey of redemption, healing, and hope in the wake of devastating loss.

            When a flood destroys Gavin Weald’s home in Trinidad and rips his family apart, life as he knows it will never be the same. A year later he returns to his house and tries to start over, but when the rainy season arrives, his daughter’s nightmares about the torrents make life there unbearable. So father and daughter—and their dog—embark upon a voyage to make peace with the waters. Their journey takes them far from their Caribbean island home, as they sail through archipelagos, encounter the grandeur of the sea, and meet with the challenges and surprises of the natural world.

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About the Author:

Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and educated in the UK. Since then she has worked as a center director for the Arvon foundation and has held the post of Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Sussex, Chichester, and Greenwich universities. She is the author of the highly acclaimed novels sun dog and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010 and the Encore Award 2011. She has also written a memoir, With the Kisses of His Mouth. Read more about her writing at www.moniqueroffey.co.uk.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

RAIN

The dog mumbles something under her breath.

What now, Gavin replies, as he goes about the kitchen in an aimless fashion. 7 p.m. Dinner should be on the table and she’s trying to remind him. Animals have a keen sense of time.

Okay, okay, he says. The dog sits in the middle of the kitchen, trying not to slump over. Her chest is robust, yet she sits in a manner which suggests her stiff front legs are propping her up. Her triangular eyes are narrowed to slits; her tongue hangs from her dark mouth. She’s making sure everything is all right, that they’ll get through for the time being. She mumbles long and loud, a sound not dissimilar to his stomach when he’s hungry.

Good girl, he says to her, not knowing if he needs or loves this dog any more.

Maccy cheese and chicken Vienna sausages will be their meal tonight. This is what his daughter likes. They’ve eaten it the last three nights; very little else will tempt her. Maybe he’ll add a tin of peas. She’s lying in the huge double bed in the bedroom, like a mermaid on a raft, watching Casper the Friendly Ghost. November and it’s still raining, popcorn rain, almost every day, short dense showers, ten minutes of a mauve downpour and then nothing. It falls from the mountains all around, unbidden, and makes him feel like he’s done something wrong, like he’s been in an argument and was the one to say all the stupid things.

He opens the tin of chicken sausages and winces at the stink. Like the innards of a gym shoe, a stale acid smell. He spills the brine out into the sink.

Here, have one of these, he says to the dog. He prongs a short brownpink sausage and holds it close to the dog’s muzzle. She sniffs it but doesn’t take a bite.

Go on, try it, he cajoles.

She sniffs again and puts her snout to the sausage. She nibbles it like a Japanese lady might nibble on a rose petal.

Oh, for God’s sakes.

She takes the sausage carefully in her mouth and then slides to the floor and drops it on the lino. She looks up at him and mumbles.

Jesus Christ.

To be this close to collapse is a soft feeling. All his inner fibre, all his strength is ungluing and stretching and he can feel himself going stringy, like he could just come apart. It will be a tender experience, like falling in love. Yes, surely dying, losing, failing, giving up, are similar to all the great uplifting feelings; surely dying is like being born.

He fills the saucepan with a jet of water, sits it on the hob and watches the ring turn candy red. The water is cloudy from the tap. As he watches it clear he puts his hand on his chest to check his heart. He scratches his beard. Black flies flit to the stove and he grabs the electric flyswatter, shaped like a small tennis racket. He swats one, smack, and the fly fries on the lines. It sizzles and forms a small black lump.

Ha, ha, see, he says to the dog. I’m still dangerous.

He swats another fly, smacking the racket down on the counter top. Another good shot, another sizzling sound. The racket smokes.

Smack, smack. Two more flies get mashed and charred. He picks at his T-shirt, and fans it against his stomach; a small sweat has broken out. Maybe he, Gavin Weald, isn’t dying, after all. Maybe he is Godzilla, the Great Ape; maybe he will destroy and conquer all.

Daddy?

The dog looks round at the little girl in the hallway.

He looks at her too.

Yes, dou dou.

What’s for dinner?

It’s a surprise, he says, hiding the racket behind his back. He towers over her, and yet he feels her strength; she can make louder sounds than he can. She can sob for a whole night, not eat for days, throw tantrums which spin themselves from nowhere. Or spin themselves from her new fear, the rain which bounds down from the hills. She is six and small and oh, so powerful.

I don’t want a surprise.

You’ll like this surprise, guaranteed.

She shakes her head which makes her blonde hair sway around her face.

What then?

Pizza.

Pizza? Since when did you prefer pizza?

With anchovies please.

You don’t even know what an anchovy is.

Yes I do.

He drops to his knees. He holds the flyswatter like a real tennis racket, across his shoulder, affecting the style of a pro, forgetting the charred lumps.

What is an anchovy, then?

It’s a fish.

Oh, he nods. This is unexpected. When did she learn about anchovies? Captain Nemo, yes, but an anchovy?

A fish? You mean like a whale?

Nooooo, she shrieks at his stupidity. They’re tiny, like a shrimp.

A shrimp?

She laughs and her face glows. The dog’s tail thumps the ground.

Océan, I’m sorry, but we don’t have anchovies. Nor whales, nor any kind of fish, and anyway, anchovies taste horrible.

I love anchovies.

You’ve never even tried one!

Yes I have.

Look, we’re having your favourite tonight, maccy cheese and . . . He looks at the sausage on the lino still between the dog’s paws . . . And then we are having ice cream with peas. That was the surprise; I wasn’t supposed to tell you. It’s a secret recipe. Now go away – and leave me to cook.

Ha. She’s outfoxed. Her face is pensive, trying to work out what to do next. He’s losing his marbles and the one good thing about it is that he can now defuse a pre- tantrum six-year-old.

Go on now. She turns and he paddles her behind with the racket full of burnt flies.

She wanders back to the bedroom and the TV.

The water in the pan bubbles furiously and he opens a packet and throws the pasta in to boil and waits, stirring and stabbing it with a wooden spoon. When it’s soft, he drains the tubes, throws them back in the pan. He takes the sachet of macaroni cheese mix and tears it open, sprinkling it in. The grey powder dissolves in a puff and the pasta coagulates into a stiff mess at the bottom. He pours in milk, adds a knob of butter. He prods and stirs, prising the pasta into separate pieces and the powder starts to become thinner and lighter in texture, like a miracle; it even starts to smell like cheese.

They eat together at the table. He doesn’t attempt conversation for fear of where it might lead. Anchovies, rain. Mummy. Cheesy steam lifts from the pot of macaroni, sedating them. Next to it, a bowl of grated cheddar, slices of bread and butter. He scoops some macaroni into her bowl and her eyes grow wide and dilated at the sight of the starchy goo.

Yum, yum, he says and means it. He sprinkles the real cheese on top and puts the bowl down in front of her. She holds her fork like a trident and gazes into the bowl, inhaling deeply. One day she’ll fall asleep into her macaroni.

Yum, yum, he says again to himself, as he scoops a triple helping and takes a fistful of cheddar.

They both hum while eating their food. She sucks whole tubes down in one, blows them out onto the table. He doesn’t care to correct her. He picks at his food and he strokes at his heart; he chews slowly, trying not to drift too far away. He especially tries not to think of the office, of what he’ll have to face tomorrow, Monday.

They’ve been back in the house exactly twelve days. Twelve days within these pink walls. Tomorrow is day thirteen. When he thinks of the office nothing comes. He can’t conjure up faces, ‘to do’ lists, Mrs Cyrus his secretary of ten years, anything. Where is it all, that part of him? He was doing so well, the CEO of a good-sized company; it feels like years ago. His head is light and there’s a churning in the pit of his stomach.

Daddy, can I get down now?

Yes, pumpkin.

Will you watch TV with me?

Of course.

He dumps the dishes into the already dish-crammed sink and burps. The dog sits against the kitchen wall. He bends and strokes her behind the ears and she tilts her head for more. Scratch, scratch, good girl. Her bull terri- er ’s nose is long and Roman, a pink patch at the end like a piece of a ballet shoe, worn satin; the tip of her nose is black and cold, reassuring to touch. He fights the urge to sit down on the floor and hug the dog close.

Come on then, Suzy. Let’s watch TV, he says.

The dog gets up and he pats her side. She trots after him, tail up, and they both climb on to the kingsize bed with the little girl on it. The three of them form them- selves into a kind of nest; the sheets around them are damp and smell of dog and feet. The Discovery Channel shows images of crocodiles in a place called Kakadu in Australia. Océan is transfixed. She is lying across his barrel chest and the dog is slumped across her legs. Immediately, as he tries to focus on the TV, his eyes feel heavy. Crocodiles, a creek somewhere, yellow eyes bulg- ing from the water. Sleep arrives quickly and he doesn’t try to fight it off; it’s usual for him to end his days like this, with his daughter clinging to him, with the feeling, deep down, that it’s the other way around.

*

In the office on Monday his staff float around him. How much longer can they trust him? How much longer would he trust him if he were them? When will the Board of Directors call him in, Steve or Mr Grant, the owner of the company; how much longer before they give him unrealistic targets, start to discuss his benefits? He is No. 3 in the company, the one hired to run everything; they can always replace a No. 3. At first there was time off. Curiosity, sympathy, cards, flowers. He didn’t discuss any of it. It was a relief to finally get back to work.

In his private office, he examines his hands. They are feathered with dead grey skin stained here and there with yellow where he’s splashed antiseptic ointment on the slits. The skin is now paper-thin. He can type, but holding a steering wheel is difficult, tying his laces is painful. His feet are the same, skin peeling off in welts. Psoriasis. It set in a few months after the flood. He’s tried everything now, all the steroid creams, the pills, hard drugs packed full of chemicals which made his hair fall out, his pubes wither. He’s started seeing an alternative doctor who can read his ‘vibrations’ on a little machine. He doesn’t know or care exactly what this means. You register a four, the doctor says. Now he’s been prescribed a glass of water every morning, with a squeeze of lime and a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to alkalise his body.

At 11 a.m. he walks to the coffee machine for his fourth cup. It’s the coffee. If he could give up coffee, his one vice, all his other problems would come good. He knows this is an underlying truth, that he cannot give up this black toxic liquid. If he could put this one little thing right, he could put everything right.

He smiles at Petula at reception and her eyes fill with love when she sees him; she’s like a nun, so openly concerned. Only she has understood.

Hi Petula, he says and she beams. Petula, who is also so fertile – five kids. So fertile she can make her glasses fog up just sitting there all day. Petula who, like the dog, has come to run his life.

Doughnut today, Mr Weald?

No thanks.

Potato pie?

Oh God, no.

What I can get fer you?

Nothing. Thank you.

He is still full of last night’s macaroni cheese. He waddles to the men’s room and stands in the cubicle, counting to ten. When his eyes are open he can see tiny filmy black snakes in the air in front of him; floaters, the optician calls them. It’s weird watching them; they look like bacteria breeding in a Petri dish. He closes his eyes and puts his fingers to his temples. He tries to steady himself but that rising panicking butterfly feeling threat- ens to get the better of him. He holds his head in his hands and counts.

When he hears the bathroom door open he unzips his flies and lets a steady torrent of saffron yellow urine cascade from him.

Pissing, ahhh, it’s like a strange dull orgasm. Maybe he could move in with Petula and her kids. Each one of them has a different father. All good-for-nothing layabouts. Maybe they could form a pod, a kind of double family. Or – better still, maybe they could all live together in his pink house. Petula appears to him, through a haze, her glasses sparkling, her smile beatific. Potato pie? Maybe she could still work on reception here, but also be a kind of flatmate. Could that work?

Mr Weald?

Uh – yes?

Mr Weald, is that you?

He panics, looking at his watch. Oh, God. A piercing realisation, no . . . no, please no. He has fallen asleep again, standing on his feet. His flies are still open, his dick hanging limp against his trousers. Petula. He was think- ing of her and then . . .

Mr Weald?

Yes, I’m here. It sounds like Elston from the warehouse, a good man. He won’t mention this to a soul.

You okay, Mr Weald?

He zips himself back up and opens the cubicle door.

Elston, I’m fine. Was I snoring?

Yes, Mr Weald.

Well, I’m fine. I just got a little lost in there; you know what it’s like.

Elston’s face is huge and incredulous.

Never mind, Gavin says quickly and leaves the men’s. He goes back to his office and tells Mrs Cyrus not to bother him. He has piles of paperwork; he tells her to put no one through unless it’s a dire emergency.

In his office he sits very still at his desk until his sense of humiliation quells and his heart slows again. He says some kind of prayer and in that moment an image of his old boat shimmers before him. Romany. His 28-foot sloop, his old mistress, his great friend. He thinks of her sitting in the olive green water, her wooden deck, her upturned bow; he knows he’s clutching at straws.

Gavin hides in his office all day. Hours of hot itchy hands and a racing heart and a mind slipping all over the place: images of Romany, the boat from his bachelor days, appear and disappear like a ghost boat in a haze. His old boat has been sitting moored at the yacht club for over a year now; they’d decided to sell her, finally. No time for boats any more, for sailing down the islands, for racing, nights gazing at the stars. His wife had never enjoyed sailing much. Then the flood came. By now, she is probably covered in pelican shit, full of rainwater.

He plays Solitaire online and then he plays Bridge. He checks Facebook seventeen times, checks for hurricanes, for sightings of UFOs, for information about Kakadu; then he finds all this checking makes his head spin even more. At 5 p.m., on the dot, he logs out and leaves the office without looking Mrs Cyrus in the eye.

*

At home Gavin stands on the lawn and scrutinises the pink garden walls. Seven feet high now, with buttresses, steel-enforced. Nothing will knock over these pink walls. What colour were they before? He can’t remember; mostly they were covered with orange trumpety flowers, a climbing plant of some sort, other shrubs. Now the walls are candy pink, princess-pink, to make his daugh- ter happy. She chose these walls. He looks up and sniffs, he can smell the rain arriving anytime soon. The sky is heavy with thunderheads about to burst; the rainy season is a month from being over.

Daddy? Océan comes to him and holds onto his legs.

Yes, dou dou.

Can we have meatballs for dinner?

Yes, we can ha...

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