Passiontide by Monique Roffey review – a passionate protest novel

<span>‘World-building power’ … Monique Roffey.</span><span>Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images</span>
‘World-building power’ … Monique Roffey.Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Inspired by the murder of a Japanese steel-pan player in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 2016, Passiontide begins like a police procedural, develops into a carnivalesque protest against femicide, and ends as a manifesto on civil disobedience and social justice. Monique Roffey’s follow-up to the Costa-winning The Mermaid of Black Conch is a mission-driven novel with an upfront political agenda.

Set in the fictional Caribbean island of St Colibri, the novel opens with the disembodied voice of Sora Tanaka, a 23-year-old Japanese pan player, recalling her violent murder under a sacred cannonball tree. Inspector Loveday, the half-hearted chief of Omwen (the Office for Murdered Women), swiftly arrives on the scene, and Roffey introduces a large and distinctive cast: British pathologist Jason Forrester; seasoned journalist Sharleen Sellier; the self-serving prime minister Errol Solomon and his domestically minded wife, Daisy; pink-haired “badass activist” Tara Kissoon; and the formidable Gigi Lala, founder of the Port Isabella Sex Workers Collective. They give Roffey a fertile, conflict-ridden ground for exploring law and order, politics, journalism and activism, though the book is distracted by too many peripheral characters.

Passiontide offers a devastating critique of the interrelationship between religion, sexism and colonialism

Roffey handles her boisterous crowd with an ambitious and chaotic energy. Sora, the voice of the dead, comes in and out of focus throughout the novel, speaking in a confessional mode that is at times jarring: “Dead now. That life now all over. How can anyone kill off someone else? … Can they ever find out who murdered me?” The last question is the key one. At the outset, Roffey gives us the impression of a detective story. Inspector Loveday’s thought process is rendered in heavy-handed bullet points: “1) Intimate Partner Violence? Possible? Crawl there, die so? … 4) Rape? Looking unlikely.” Soon it becomes apparent that “state-approved, state-sanctioned misogyny” runs from the prime minister to almost every male character. It’s frustrating, in a way, that the male-dominated Omwen renders any police procedural ineffective and therefore suppresses the thriller element of the book, but it also enables Roffey to harness the effects of institutionalised misogyny and challenge our expectations of these standard genres.

In this Caribbean dystopia, Roffey builds a utopia of female solidarity. Tara, inspired by the Occupy movement in America, has convinced Gigi and Sharleen to set up camp in the island’s busy central square and ignite the social media sphere with “#AmINext”. The novel becomes most alive, yet also more predictable, as a march snowballs into a mass protest and then an island-wide intersectional movement. This generates exhilarating and heartwarming scenes involving women, children, street kitchens, generators, hurricane lamps, outdoor fairy lights, tents, flags and cooking pots. Also, “pictures of dead or missing local women, faces, names … hundreds of faces”. More hashtags (“#IMSCAREDTOO, #FEMICIDEMUSTSTOP”), more protesters, more attention “now impossible to ignore”. But the men in power do ignore and continue to demean and exploit women. “They all hate the power of female sexuality,” Tara observes. “The power that generates all life. Men resent it. Religion, all religions feel threatened by it.” In St Colibri, sex is a lethal weapon for oppression against women, but as the protest deepens, women turn sex into a powerful weapon to fight their cause.

Roffey’s world-building power is evident on every page, and her characters mainly come with their own plausible backstories. In a novel about social transformation, it’s pointedly ironic how little tangible change takes place, except through the powerful character of Daisy Solomon, the prime minister’s wife, who embodies a repressed, explosive energy rather different from the other women in Passiontide. Daisy’s protracted self-discovery and thorny path to power is a source of inspiration, alongside the admirable effort of other heroines.

Taken as a whole, Passiontide offers a devastating critique of the interrelationship between religion, sexism and colonialism. The Black Madonna and many other female deities such as Oshun, Atabey, Guabancex, Lakshmi and Shakti are invoked to preside over the protest movement, protecting the women against TV propaganda denouncing feminism as “anti-spiritual”, “anti-family’, “anti-God”, something “invented by white women in America and Europe, imposed on us”. Roffey exposes the painful truth that “St Colibri had been one long education in the historic karma of Empire”.

In her author’s note, Roffey writes that “there are 81,000 women and girls killed per year … Femicide is a global problem.” Passiontide fulfils its mission as a state-of-the-island novel that highlights the scale of violence against women and the power of protest. Though it often sits awkwardly between a thriller and passionate social manifesto, it dramatises a full-throated campaign for change.

• Passiontide by Monique Roffey is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.