The Mermaid of Black Conch, written by Trinidadian-born author Monique Roffey, was the winner of the Costa Book of Year prize in 2020. It is a book that we recently picked for my book club to read, although we have met very infrequently over the past two years, mainly due to the pandemic. It’s a very enjoyable book – as Jade Cuttle, writing in the UK’s Times newspaper put it: “Picture in your mind a book about mermaids. Now turn that image upside down, set it on fire and pee all over it“.
Subtitled “A Love Story“, the novel is set in a lush Caribbean island setting, amid acres of forest, albino peacocks, glittering sunshine, giant fig trees, snakes, biblical-level storms and sea. It tells the story of a young, lonely, soon infatuated man, David, and his encounter in 1976 with a mermaid. Once a young woman known as Aycayia, a member of the island’s long-dead indigenous Neo-Taíno people, she was cursed thousands of years beforehand to live for eternity in the form of a mermaid, by other women infuriated and envious of her beauty and the power that her sexuality gave her over their menfolk.
The mermaid is lured close to the shore as she, likewise, is interested in David, who likes to sail the local seas, strumming his guitar, singing and smoking “the finest local ganja”. However, after many centuries at sea, accompanied only by a sea turtle – a cursed old woman – Aycayia’s human side is long-buried.
A group of US bounty hunters also set out to sea one fateful day, and after a gruelling and exhausting battle, the magnificent mermaid, having strayed closer to the shore than was advisable, is eventually hooked out of the ocean, three-quarters-dead, and strung up like a massive fish.
Witnessing her fate, David can’t bear to leave her to death – or worse – at the hands of the hunters, and he stealthily spirits her away (in a far-from-romantic wheelbarrow). As he coaxes her back to health he seeks to earn her trust, and the pair gradually become closer and closer. Slowly, bit by bit, she becomes less like a strangely alluring beached marine animal and more like a gorgeous woman, but their love affair has more insurmountable differences than the average pairing.
Aycayia develops close bonds with other local inhabitants too, including Reggie, a young deaf boy, with whom she develops an immediate connection, picking up sign language faster than spoken language. But there are others who are keen to see her restored to the hunters, who continue to regard their catch as nothing more than a potential source of income.
Issues around racism, misogyny and the repression of women’s sexuality, the continuing impact of colonialism, and the ‘othering’ of those with a difference proliferate and underpin the narrative, but with a light touch that doesn’t detract from the unspooling of this subverted love story.
Stories of romance involving merpeople are relatively common, from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid to Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water. This book, with its dark-skinned Caribbean mermaid gives a new spin to the fairy tale tropes though, and is inspired very loosely by an ancient Nao-Taíno legend. Comprising third-person narrative, poetic reflections in the voice of the mermaid Aycayia herself and later journal entries, written by David as a much older man, in 2015, the book weaves together a captivating and strangely believable combination of myth and romance.
“He had seen her shoulders, her head, her breasts and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy and jook up with anemone and conch shell. A merwoman. He stared at the spot of her appearance for some time. He took a good look at his spliff; was it something real strong he smoke this morning?”