A father. A small girl. An old dog. All three survivors of a traumatic event. All three emotionally scarred by the experience. One year later, as Monique Roffey’s novel Archipelego begins, the rains that caused a torrent of muddy water to sweep through their Trinidad island home are about to return, bringing with them the nightmares of the past.
Gavin Weald can think of only one way to protect his family, to hideaway among the multiple island groups off the coast of South America aboard his boat Romany. Father and daughter with their loyal dog Suzy in tow sail far from their Caribbean home, via archipelegos along the Venezuelan and Colombian coast and through the Panama canal to the Galapagos islands. As they confront the majesty of the sea and witness the oddities and spectacles of the natural world, their sense of loss and grief is never far away.
It’s a compelling book largely because Roffey brings the wonders of the islands and their inhabitants to life without dwelling on them so much that the novel threatens to become simply a travelogue. Her descriptions of the scenery have the ring of authenticity — she travelled much of this route herself by boat — but at the same time she conveys a sense that these three wayfarers have sailed into another world.
The day is coming to a close, the skies ahead are turning sell pint and the surface of the sea has the look of a fluid fabric, something unending and shifting. another surface and he has the sense that the bat is sailing in a vast field of mercury. Or maybe Romany has even taken flight, landed on a different planet,were the ground is blue and ripples.
This is not a purely paradisiacal voyage however since Roffey weaves several social issues and commentary into her narrative. The effect of tourism on fragile natural environments is omnipresent, from the assortment of plastic debris and shattered coral Gavin sees washed up on a beach in the Los Roques islands to the large tourism ships moored at the Galapagos islands. Darker themes are evident too as the trio find evidence of drug trafficking and see huts occupied by slaves transported to some of the archipelegos to gather salt.
These themes are never so dominant that they destroy the book’s real strengths which lie in its depiction of the warm and loving relationship between Gavin, his six-year-old daughter Ocean and their dog. It’s a tough job to create a child character that is convincing but in Ocean, Roffey gives us a portrait that is amusing and poignant in equal measures. Gavin is equally well observed — what father hasn’t felt frustrated by a child that will eat nothing but macaroni cheese and asks awkward questions when viewing a statue of the Virgin Mary, about the meaning of that first word. Touching certainly but Gavin’s vulnerability is equally evident; he feels he should have protected his family, that is what fathers and husband’s do after all. Out on the open sea he is once again in a situation where upon his decisions depend the lives of his daughter and his dog.
The ending is a little too neatly wrapped up and the purpose of Gavin’s journey is never fully rationalised. But this doesn’t prevent Archipelego from being a fascinating story about endurance and fortitude in the face of personal loss.