In Monique Roffey's latest novel Archipelago, protagonist 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.
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 the 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.
For all of our protagonist's uncertainty, his prevarications on both dry land and shifting water, the quiet splendour of Roffey's characterisation 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. Nothing seems clear about human progress: it all glimmers, like the Sea Empress tourist ship, "grotesque and a spectacle in its own right."
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 tantalising 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.