The Mermaid of Black Conch is a tragic love story by British ‘writer, lecturer and activist’ Monique Roffey. Originally published for Kindle in 2020 by Peepal Tree Press, this novel boasts many accolades including the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award, the 2020 Costa Novel Prize Award and other nominations.
Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch in the year 1976, David Baptiste is a humble guitar-strumming fisherman who sets out on his pirogue only to encounter a mermaid; a woman cursed a thousand years ago by jealous wives. Shortly after that meeting the mermaid, Aycayia, is violently captured by American fishermen visiting the island. David rescues Aycayia from their clutches and takes her back to his home. The plan is to keep her hidden and then discreetly release her back into the sea but as Aycayia starts to transform, a deeper connection begins to develop between the fisherman and the mermaid.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is a viscous magical realism novel with an engaging narrative. The story is told in an epistolary, omnipotent and poetic way with lots of Caribbean (mostly Trinidadian) vernacular. There are David’s diary entries recounting the events of that Spring as well as Aycayia’s song-like POV.
The story has a magical quality about it, mostly explored through Aycayia’s indigenous roots but there’s also a lot of stirring commentary about classism, history and misogyny. For example, Arcadia Rain, a white woman who is also David’s distant cousin owns most of the land in the village, bequeathed to her by the island’s former white oppressors. Her social status is an extension of modern-day colonialism and informs many of the negative interactions she experiences in her everyday life.
One of this book’s central themes aside from the romantic attraction between David and Aycayia is the enduring quality of women to treat other women badly. Aycayia was cursed by jealous wives to live alone as a mermaid because her beauty tempted all the men. Priscilla hates Aycayia because of the closeness she shares with David. And let’s not forget the highly charged tensions between Priscilla and Arcadia. In each of these instances, the hatred of these women is influenced by the attention they crave from men. This is reflective of the real world in which women are socially conditioned to be more antagonistic towards other women than men.
Priscilla, a Black Conch village local, known for constantly pursuing David for ‘sexing’ was a very contentious issue for me. In his diary, David describes her as ‘pure malice’ and the ‘meanest woman in the village.’ She has two sons for two different men and not only does she act sexually wonton towards David but she’s also hooking up with the Superintendent Porthos John. As the most prominent darker-skinned character in the narrative and one of the main antagonists, I found it telling that she is the literal embodiment of almost every negative stereotype attached to Black women. On the surface, her character appears to be symbolic of internalised misogyny but it also reinforces a racist and sexist image that real-world darker-skinned Black woman are constantly judged by.
Lastly, the romance. Things develop between David and Aycayia slowly at first as the mermaid gradually starts to build trust in this man that only seems to want one thing. David learns patience and the true meaning of love in his commitment to stay with Aycayia even through the unsightly stages of her transformation. I believed in the tenderness of their affection for each other borne of mutual fascination, but the platonic friendship that grew between Aycayia and Arcadia’s son, Reggie felt a lot more wholesome to me. Even though the means of communication were limited, I could really sense the deep affinity they shared.
I thought The Mermaid of Black Conch was a sharp-witted and perceptive novel with a bittersweet ending. Overall I loved it despite my misgivings, it was unsettling but fascinatingly deep.