The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

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.

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2010

I started my blog in early March 2017 to discuss and write about books I had enjoyed reading. This has gradually evolved to become a very enjoyable activity as much as reading itself has been and will continue to be.

It also means there were several excellent books which I read pre-blog that I could not discuss unless I chose to re-read them. The problem is that I have so many books unread, it’s always a dilemma between re-reading a favourite or trying out something new.

Anyway, as I was deleting notes on an old phone, I came across some lists I had made – the best books I read every year.

The seed of an idea was born. Why not highlight these books on my blog?

This exercise was also a great reminder of some wonderful authors I had read and my resolve to seek out more of their works which somehow never came to fruition because there were always other books to tempt me.

I started making these lists from 2010, so that’s the year I will start with (the last of these being 2015, since the Best of 2016 was already the first ever post on this blog).

Also, I don’t intend to write a detailed view on any of these books. It is more of an attempt to bring them into focus once again and so the write-ups will be short.

So without much ado, here were my top reads in 2010…

Best of 2010

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan

I loved this slim and stylish novella set in summer in the French Riviera. Cécile and her father Raymond are holidaying in the South of France on the coast. They lead a carefree, languorous and bohemian life – Cécile in particular is content to soak up the sun and laze with her boyfriend Cyril.

Until one day Anne arrives into their lives, eventually to become Raymond’s partner. Anne is cultured and intelligent and regards herself as a sort of godmother to Cécile. She tries to take Cécile under her wing, to compel her to stop seeing Cyril and get back to her schoolbooks, all of which agitates Cécile greatly and propels her to hatch a plan.

Haweswater – Sarah Hall

I love Sarah Hall. Haweswater was the first novel of hers that I read and I was blown away by it. The book is set in the beautiful Lakes District in England.

Here’s the blurb:

The village of Marsdale is a quiet corner of the world, cradled in a remote dale in England’s lovely Lake District. The rhythm of life in the deeply religious, sheltered community has not changed for centuries. But in 1936, when Waterworks representative Jack Ligget from industrial Manchester arrives with plans to build a new reservoir, he brings the much feared threat of impending change to this bucolic hamlet. 

Jack then begins a passionate affair with one of the residents of that village Janet Lightburn and it is in the depiction of this relationship where Sarah Hall has excelled. Her writing is so spiky, raw and visceral and it was unlike anything I had read at the time.

The Good Doctor – Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut was a find that year as I gulped down three novels in quick succession.

The Good Doctor is a taut, lean and compelling novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa that essentially focuses on two main characters – Frank Eloff and Laurence Waters, two doctors of different personalities and opposing perspectives, who are now thrown together in the same hospital and are also sharing a room. The novel charts the actions of these men as they respond to the challenges that they face in the hospital as well as in the community in their own ways, each with a varied view on what is moral or ethical.

The Impostor – Damon Galgut

The Impostor is another superb offering from Galgut and even better than The Good Doctor.

When Adam moves into an abandoned house on the dusty edge of the town, he is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his home in the city. But then he meets Channing – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past – along with Channing’s enigmatic wife.

Greed and corruption in South African society is at the centre of this novel. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel that is both unsettling and thrilling at the same time.

In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is a completely different beast from both The Good Doctor and The Impostor but incredible in its own way. This is a more reflective and quiet novel which explores the themes of travel and relationships and what they entail – does travel give the much desired freedom or does it intensify feelings of loneliness?

The novel is told in three parts – the only link being the narrator who is Galgut himself. Besides the beautiful writing, what impressed me was the ease with which Galgut was able to move between first and third person in a single sentence. It’s a credit to the quality of his prose that instead of confusing the reader, this ploy actually enhanced the effect of what he wanted to convey.

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

This is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.

We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.

The Fall – Simon Mawer

I had loved Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier, and was therefore keen to try more of his work.

The Fall in set in Wales.  Jim Matthewson, one of the great climbers of the modern era, has died in one of his mountaineering expeditions. His old professional partner Rob Dewar attends the funeral and the inquest, and gradually begins a relationship with Jim’s wife Ruth. That’s the present. The novel then goes back to the past highlighting the lives of Rob and Jim’s parents, and the impact it will have on the younger generation.

While the splendor of nature and obsession with mountaineering are wonderfully evoked by Mawer, this is also a novel of friendship and family secrets, the crux of which is revealed in the final pages.

The Way We Live Now – Anthony Trollope

The first and the only Trollope I have read till now. This is one of his standalone works and not part of either the Barchester or the Palliser series.

This is a richly layered novel with many sub plots. But what impressed me at the time was how prescient the novel was. Trollope penned this inspired by the financial scandals of the 1870s. And I delved into it just when the crippling effects of global financial crisis of 2008-09 were still playing out. In essence, The Way We Live Now is a satire on the greed and corruption that seeped into the moral fabric of the society at the time. The most notable creation was Augustus Melmotte, a wealthy financier with a mysterious past.

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost was a favourite of mine many moons ago and Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall did not disappoint either.

This is an ambitious novel comprising three sections that move backwards from Edwardian London (early 1900s) to Paris in 1890 and finally to Venice in 1867, in search not only of the reasons for Stone’s death but of the man himself. Also, every section is told from a different point of view.

As I recall, of the three, the Paris and the Venice sections were the most absorbing for different reasons. The Paris story was peppered with enough tension and drama exploring the worlds of banking and financial management, as also wonderfully evoking the atmosphere of intellectual salons.

The Venice section was more melancholy but no less gripping. Here, Pears has superbly conjured the rot and decay of Venice – of not just its grand palazzos but also of its people. All of this ultimately culminates into a satisfying end to Stone’s saga.

Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth

Sacred Hunger was the joint winner of the Booker Prize along with The English Patient. But while the latter went on to garner accolades even to be made into an acclaimed film, Sacred Hunger comparatively sank into oblivion.

Here’s an excerpt of the book from Wikipedia:

The story is set in the mid-18th century and centres on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who losing everything that he loves decides to go on the voyage. The novel’s central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail.

This was a richly layered tale, which besides the themes of slavery and vengeance, also explored the topics of mutiny and setting up a utopian society.

And that’s it for 2010. Next month, I will highlight the best books I read in 2011.