Ashes, nicknamed ‘Books’, is a quiet, studious man with a wife and two children. The novel begins with him at prayer in the commune which he visits for this purpose. The commune is led by ‘the Leader…a huge man, six foot six, with a broad and powerful back and a muscular neck’. He has ‘…three wives, nine children and a hundred fostered sons…’, boys he has rescued from the streets and a life of poverty and crime. He’s also brought together a whole range of people who wouldn’t usually associate with each other, ‘…people from all walks of life’. He tells them that during times of slavery, their spirituality was stolen from them, so rather than converting people, they are being reverted back to the path they should have followed.
This reversion is about to branch off in the form of a revolution, a coup d’etat, performed by the men of the commune.
‘The time has come, my brothers, to rise up and change our fate and the fate of this small country. We will be fighting for the oppressed and for a New Society, a fairer, more civil world. We will be liberating the poor man in the street, poor men like us. Common sufferers. And they will rise up and join our struggle. And this is the will of God.’
The Leader has telephoned Ashes, personally, the previous week, counting on his support by referencing Ashes’ brother, River. River had been part of a group called the Brotherhood of Freedom Fighters, a group who had continued to rebel against the government following a failed coup in 1970. He was shot dead in broad daylight. The doctor who examined him removed 28 bullets from his body.
Ashes and the other men are armed and taken quickly in trucks to the House of Power where they storm the building and take a number of ministers, including the Prime Minister, hostage. It is violent and bloody and Ashes finds himself wondering what he’s got himself involved in.
It soon becomes clear that the Leader and his group aren’t as well organised or supported, as they believed. An hour later, when the army arrive on the scene in support of the government, it seems as though it’s all over:
The air around him became smoky and peppery with gunfire and a brother next to Ashes, one of his fellow revolutionaries, was shot straight through the head. His skull split open and his face splattered into pieces and his tongue was shot out of his mouth. The tongue landed on the red velvet carpet.
It’s not the end though, it’s the beginning of a standoff that will last six days, during which the lives of those inside the building will be irrevocably changed.
The House of Ashes is based on real events in Trinidad and Tobago, though Roffey has chosen to place them on the fictional Sans Amen which she says is ‘located in the northernmost part of the Caribbean archipelago and was once a British colony’.
Roffey’s version of events is told through a dual narrative – a third person subjective from Ashes’ point of view and a first person narration from Aspasia Garland, Minister for the Environment, who is one of the hostages. This allows Roffey to explore the issues that have brought about the coup and their consequences from both sides. She also uses a third character, a fourteen-year-old boy nicknamed Breeze, who’s one of the Leader’s rescued street children. In one of the best pieces in the novel, Breeze challenges Aspasia over the ideas that he’s been fed, her responses leading him to think for himself for perhaps the first time in his life.
Houses of Ashes is a powerful book. Roffey’s writing is unflinching both in its description of events and its reasons for them. She explores themes of violence, politics and the role of parenting in light of both of them. It is a book I want to give to every person who tells me that women write differently to men – both in terms of style and of subject. It’s the best 2014 published novel I’ve read so far this year.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy.