The Mermaid of Black Conch has been making waves on the prize circuit. It won the Costa Book of the Year in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize that same year. Three months into 2021, the novel also found a place on the shortlists of both the Folio Rathbones Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. These achievements are pretty remarkable for a book that at one point was almost not published.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is a lovely, bittersweet, fable-like story with a mermaid at its centre, encompassing weighty themes of womanhood, desire, slavery, animal rights, and our attitude towards outsiders.
The tale is set in April 1976 in St Constance, a tiny village on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. Our protagonist is Aycayia, a beautiful young woman who has been cursed by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid and she has been swimming in the Black Conch waters for many centuries now.
One day, while strumming his guitar on one part of the coast, a young fisherman called David spots Aycayia rising above the water, staring intently at him. David is entranced by her, by how exotic she is. Subsequent attempts to glimpse her turn futile, and then after many days he spots her again. Clearly, he is bowled over by her and Aycayia, in turn, is mesmerized by David’s singing.
But then things take a turn for the worse when a couple of American fishermen arrive at the village to participate in a fishing competition. Thomas Clayson is hoping that this expedition will enable some bonding between him and his son Hank, who he thinks spends too much time reading. He wants to enforce in his son, his twisted ideas of masculinity. Enlisting some locals as their crew, the Claysons embark on their fishing trip and manage to entrap Aycayia, who is unwittingly lured towards their ship by David. Aycayia struggles for several hours, but is ultimately defeated…the Americans capture, gag and bind her and take her onshore. As the revelry and celebrations begin full swing at the village inn, David stealthily tiptoes towards where she’s held hostage and rescues her.
He takes her home. From thereon, not only does he start taking care of her with great tenderness, but Aycayia also begins her transformation back to a woman. She loses her mermaid tail, her fins and scales, and must now learn to walk and talk the language of the island.
Zoom to another section, and we are introduced to the character of Arcadia Rain, a white woman and a landlady who owns practically much of the Black Conch island. Arcadia lives alone in a mansion atop a hill with her deaf son. Her partner, a black man called Life, abandons her while pregnant, because he can’t stand being ‘owned’ by a white woman and craves to make a name for himself in the art world. Arcadia hates him and yearns for him at the same time.
Every afternoon, around three o’clock, David dropped Aycayia to Miss Rain’s for lessons. There at the table in the grand room with wooden floors, sat an indigenous woman of the Caribbean; cursed to be a mermaid by her own sisterhood, whose people had all but died out, slaughtered by the Castilian Admiral and his kind; a woman who, as a mermaid, was pulled out of the sea by Yankee men who wanted to auction her off and if not that, stuff her and keep her as a trophy; a woman who was rescued by a Black Conch fisherman; a mermaid who had come back to live as a woman of the Caribbean again. She sat quietly as she learnt language again, from another woman she wasn’t sure she could trust. This woman was white, dappled with freckles, and no matter what she wasn’t, she was of the type who had wiped her people out. Arcadia [Rain] was self conscious, because she only spoke Black Conch English, a mixture of words from the oppressor and the oppressed.
Other characters dotting the story are Priscilla, an evil, bitter woman, who in her greed for money making schemes does not care about hurting others. And a policeman whose help she enlists when she notices something ‘fishy’ going on in David’s home.
All these various story threads come together as the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion. But, will this fairy-tale like story have a happy ending?
The narrative structure is interesting. In every chapter, there’s blend of a third person voice, David’s diary entries some 40 years later recalling his time with Aycayia, and Aycayia’s unique voice presented to us like free-verse poems.
There’s a lot going on in The Mermaid of Black Conch and it is rife with some big ideas. One of them is the legacy of slavery and its burden on subsequent generations. Arcadia Rain is a fair woman and treats the island people well but the taint of her ancestors’ actions (they were plantation owners keeping slaves) sticks to her even when she is trying to erase that blot.
The other dominant viewpoint displayed to the reader is the cruelty perpetrated on outsiders, on people who are significantly different from us. Plus, the novel could also be interpreted as a statement on how exotic creatures are seen through a prism of unabashed greed and shameless profiteering. These themes are explored though the despicable actions of both the American fishermen and Priscilla.
There are some beautiful moments in the book – the blooming of love between David and Aycayia, and the special bond formed between Aycayia and Arcadia’s deaf son as both navigate the intricacies of language and communication.
But The Mermaid of Black Conch is also a novel about womanhood and desire. When Aycayia’s transformation into a woman is complete, the attraction between her and David sparkles like electricity and they give in to desire. Hell-bent on learning the ropes about relationships, David for once is clear about not engaging in flings, but instead taking their relationship to the next level. But is that what Aycayia wants? Aycayia is content being a woman and learning things anew, but she also yearns for the sea where she has spent such a large part of her life. And while her life on land broke the shackles of her curse which bound her in a mermaid’s body, will marriage feel like a trap again?
I want to stay my woman self
even here when my people long dead
I want to be here on land again
but deep inside I know there is still some mix up
I am still half and half
half woman and half cursed woman
cursed still in this new place
The sea is a strong pull
Despite some amount of melodrama in the final pages (the bad guys chasing the good guys in a Hindi movie potboiler kind of way), The Mermaid of Black Conch is a story with a big heart, a beautiful, seamless amalgam of the mythical with the real, and a novel where Roffey pushes the boundaries while exploring myriad motifs of enduring love, racial tension and Caribbean folklore.