Maud Martha – Gwendolyn Brooks

Faber Editions is putting out some excellent titles. Earlier this year, I read the wonderful Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, and now it’s Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, which at barely 114 pages is an absolute gem of a novella.

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to depict the ordinary life of an indomitable, black woman and her people – dreams and desires, dashed hopes and disappointments and yet finding meaning in the simple pleasures of life.

What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the wet sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch: and dandelions.

Thus begins the first description that we get of Maud Martha, a dreamy, young woman, who would have liked either a lotus, or China asters or meadow lilies, but is fascinated instead by dandelions (“yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard”). Considering herself plain-looking in sharp contrast to her lovely sister Helen, to Maud the dandelions epitomize an accurate depiction of herself (“it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.)”

Maud Martha’s family comprises her parents, sister Helen and brother Harry and they have a home they can truly call their own, although for a short period they are faced with the danger of losing it due to financial troubles. Maud mostly has blissful memories of her childhood – a warm family life even if she’s not the apple of her parents’ eye, traditional Christmas celebrations and the camaraderie with her schoolmates.   Even as a child, her perceptive quality shines through – when she notices her parents embracing, she is glad that they have ended their quarrel and patched up, and the death of her grandmother frightens and saddens Martha as she ponders, “I never saw anybody die before. But I’m seeing somebody die now.”

As the years roll on by, Maud Martha will go on to have a couple of boyfriends, meet Paul Phillips, marry him and settle down, have a house of her own, give birth to a daughter Paulette and enmesh with her community.

Maud Martha beautifully conveys not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. The piece on New York is vibrant with colourful images – Maud has visions of herself in New York with its splendid tapestry of well-heeled, sophisticated people, delectable food, expensive wines, posh luxurious restaurants and hotels, the art and culture scene. In another piece, one of her boyfriends, her second beau, who “belonged to the world of the university”, covets the finer things in life – well-furnished apartment with bookcases, records, symphonies, a dog; things that are a hallmark of the well-bred, upper class set. But what chance does he have of achieving this kind of status given his poorer roots, he laments.

What chance did he have, he mused, what chance was there for anybody coming out of a set of conditions that never allowed for the prevalence of sensitive, and intellectual, yet almost frivolous, dinner-table discussions of Parrington across four-year-old heads?

We are also given a glimpse of the working class community that Maud Martha is part of, exemplified by her neighbours in the building where she resides. Named “Kitchenette Folks”, it is the longest chapter in the book that wonderfully depicts the building inhabitants and their wide-ranging personalities, expectations and circumstances. There’s Oberto, who adores his wife Marie, often criticized by the women who gossip about her poor housekeeping skills, but Oberto considers himself blessed because he would rather have a wife who invests her time in caring for her looks. There’s the little boy Clement Lewy, whose mother has lost the will to carry on after being deserted by her husband. But Clement is a spirited boy, revels in the orderly, sameness of his life, and is always joyful when he greets his mother coming back home after a hard day’s work. There’s the strange youth of twenty who one day barges into Maud’s apartment, and the Whitestripes (“the happiest couple Maud Martha had ever met”), whose close bonding and affection Maud knows she will never have with Paul. There’s Richard, the truck driver, whose weekly earnings barely support his family of five, and the daily stress becomes so hard to bear that one day he just doesn’t come home.

It’s also an astute depiction of marriage and the tempering of expectations that come with it witnessed through the lens of Maud’s relationship with Paul. Maud has no illusions about her marriage. She knows Paul will marry her because she is sweet and good (“He is thinking that I am all right. That I am really all right. That I will do.”), although a part of her wonders whether he is beset with thoughts of finding someone better. As a couple, they are often mismatched as far as interests go – Maud loves theatre, art and culture which Paul does not much care for. He has an affinity for a dazzling social life filled with glamorous beautiful people, and being recognized in exclusive clubs. With the birth of their daughter Paulette, Paul is often overwhelmed with the dreariness of his existence (“she knew that he was tired of his wife, tired of his living quarters, tired of working at Sam’s, tired of his two suits”), and yet she is fiercely protective of her world when her mother comments that they could do better (“I have a husband, a nice little girl, and a clean home of my own”).

She watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.

There are undercurrents of darkness that lace the novella, the racial slurs and insults that slip through the holes in the fabric of Maud Martha’s life; the bigotry and condescending attitude of the whites that she and her family can’t always escape. When visiting a movie hall, Maud and Paul worry about getting “suspicious looks” because they are the only black couple in the theatre, while in a heartbreaking scene, a department store Santa Claus looks through Maud and her daughter Paulette when the latter lists the gifts she wishes Santa to bring her for Christmas.

Like an exquisitely carved doll-house of extraordinary workmanship with each compartment having a unique story to tell, these perfectly crafted miniature stories are complete by themselves, and yet unique in the way they reveal various facets of Maud Martha’s personality. She is a child saddened and bewildered by her grandmother’s death. She is a self-aware teenager who envies the prettiness of her sister Helen. She loves books, boasts of a rich inner world and a lively imagination. She becomes a wife and a mother and manages the highs and lows with aplomb – the happiness, challenges and inevitable frustrations that these roles entail. All the while reminded that she is a black woman who will not be considered an equal to her white counterparts but she handles their oblique insults with dignity, although internally rebelling against them. She is a woman who loves tradition, festivities that made her childhood such a jovial place. But more importantly, she is a woman who despite life not having panned out exactly the way she wanted, still manages to find gladness and beauty all around her.

Maud Martha learns to make best use of the raw materials that life has accorded her and fashion it into something memorable. She would have loved a stately home and a lavish lifestyle but she takes pride in decorating her little kitchenette. She would have loved Paul to be more compatible with her, but does not harbour resentment when that does not happen. She bears no ill-will towards her father who clearly panders to her sister Helen’s every whim. There is a wide gap between her imagined life and the hardcore reality but she does not slide into unhappiness and despondency.  

What’s also great about Maud Martha is the magical prose awash with lush and vivid imagery and descriptions – the “shafts and pools of light, the tree, the graceful iron” that form an intrinsic part of her family home; New York which “glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard” as she stood before theatres “of the thousand lights”, the snow as “finest bits of white powder coming down with an almost comical little ethereal hauteur.”

The episodic structure of Maud Martha is reminiscent of Evan S. Connell’s fabulous novel Mrs Bridge – the miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, much nuanced and subtle, sumptuous language with a poetic touch. However, as a character, Maud Martha is very unlike Mrs Bridge; she is definitely not a helpless woman by any stretch of the imagination, even if her life has not always evolved as per her wishes.

Then she thought of her life. Decent childhood, happy Christmases; some shreds of romance, a marriage, a pregnancy and the giving birth, her growing child, her experiments in sewing, her books, her conversations with her friends and enemies.

“It hasn’t been bad,” she thought.

Maud Martha, then, is a gorgeous depiction of ordinary life, where Brooks through sheer poetry and wisdom conveys the beauty of the everyday – the hopes, ambitions, pitfalls, joys and sorrows. Through Maud’s personality and the environment she grows up in, Brooks explores broader themes of racial and class differences, family life, marriage and community. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let ways of society always dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

To create – a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.

What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.

She would polish and hone that.

Ethan Frome & Summer – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors as can be gauged from the number of books I have reviewed on this blog – The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, Old New York, and The New York Stories. Her best novel in my view – The Age of Innocence – I had read pre-blog, and one I hope to reread and review in the near future. But this post focuses on Ethan Frome and Summer, two novellas that boast of the same emotional depth and intensity as her New York novels and stories.

ETHAN FROME

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

When the book opens, we are in Starkfield, Massachusetts; a bleak, remote town characterized by winters so bitterly cold that they only accentuate a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Our narrator is a young man, visiting Starkfield for a short period on some urgent business. On his way to the post office driven by Harmon Gow, his glance falls upon the pitiable, weighed down profile of Ethan Frome for the first time…

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him (Frome) for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like a jerk of chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.

He also notices other features on Frome’s face, features that indicate a hard life lived, but with meager explanations provided by Gow, the aura of mystery around Frome only deepens. For instance, we learn of a red gash across Frome’s forehead which in the past is a result of an accident or a “smash-up.” We are told that accident had also “shortened and warped his right side”, so that it was an effort for Frome to take the few steps from his buggy to the post office window.

Information on Frome from the residents is cryptic, not shedding much light on the extent of his calamity or the reason for the defeated expression on his face (“That man touch a hundred? He looks as if her was dead and in hell now!”).

An unexpected offer from Frome to drive our narrator to his workplace on a particularly stormy, snowy night followed by an invitation to his home gives our narrator a clearer picture of Frome’s tormented past, a tale that the narrator then communicates to us readers (“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story…”).

Rewind back twenty-five years and Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zeena, Ethan’s wife, a hypochondriac, who for the most part of the day is to be found lying in her bedroom beset by a host of illnesses, for which she is on a quest to find a cure. These treatments are an additional burden on Frome, who is struggling as it is to get through the days. It is easy to discern that Ethan and Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan.

In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin (not closely related), and she finds a place in the Frome household to help Zeena with the housework and to do most of the heavy lifting because of Zeena’s lack of strength. This arrangement works to Zeena’s advantage – she can keep Mattie without paying her because of the latter’s father’s unsavoury past which left him heavily indebted to Zeena’s extended family and relatives.

Mattie is a lively, sensual, joyous young woman and Ethan falls head over heels in love with her and relishes the moments he can spend alone with her, however, frugal. It would seem that after traversing a darkened, suffocating tunnel of poverty, thwarted ambitions, and a dead marriage, he would finally embrace a spot of brightness at the end of it, a slim chance for happiness. But a little domestic mishap destroys that sliver of hope and as if life wasn’t already hard enough for Ethan, a cruel twist of fate in the final pages delivers the ultimate crushing blow.

Ethan Frome, then, is a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

It’s a very atmospheric read where the weather plays a dominant role in shaping up the lives of the principal characters. The bleakness of the harsh cold winters that gets under your skin, the feeling of being cut off from the world as heavy snowfalls blanket the region transforming it into an expanse of white, only heighten Ethan’s loneliness compelling him to make a bad decision of marrying Zeena. Indeed, Zeena was brought in to nurse Ethan’s ailing mother but once the mother dies during one such deep winter, he mistakenly believes that marrying Zeena is a better alternative than spending the rest of his days alone in this remote town where the cold is so unforgiving.

The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.

Ethan’s plight is heartbreaking and poignant all the more so because of his gentle, helpful personality which unleashes a wave of sympathy and sadness in the reader. And he finds himself at the mercy of Zeena who while is not always physically around because of being locked up in her room, is nevertheless perceptive about the goings-on in the house in her absence.

Wharton’s writing is impeccable as ever, her vision for this novella is unremittingly bleak but she infuses such depth in her characters so as to make the narrative utterly compelling. A slim novel with a big impact.

SUMMER

Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.

Our protagonist is Charity Royall, a young, attractive woman residing in the small, puritanical town of North Dormer with her guardian Mr Royall. The book opens with her emerging from the Royall house on a translucent July afternoon where “the springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village.” Her glance falls on a young man who rushes to retrieve his hat which has fallen in the duck pond, a man she has never seen before…

As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall’s doorstep noticed that he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he was laughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at such mishaps.

We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life.

That journey makes her realize that there’s a bigger world beyond, and this unleashes a thirst for information. She takes advantage of her position of a library custodian to read as much as possible, but soon the sheen of Nettleton wears off and Charity once again settles into her present staid life.

But then comes along the young man, Lucius Harney, and once again that wave of discontent rises in Charity as she is forced to admit how small and limited her existence is.

Meanwhile, Lucius Harney is residing with Mrs Hatchard (they are cousins), and has arrived in North Dormer because he is interested in the architecture of this town. On his visit to the library, he notices Charity for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he willing to brush aside Charity’s ignorance of the requirements of her job.

After some misunderstandings between the two, Harney and Charity embark on a passionate affair that unfurls over the course of a hazy, languid summer.

All her tossing contradictory impulses were merged in a fatalistic acceptance of his will. It was not that she felt in him any ascendency of character – there were moments already when she knew she was the stronger – but that all the rest of life had become a mere cloudy rim about the central glory of their passion. Whenever she stopped thinking about that for a moment she felt as she sometimes did after lying on the grass and staring up too long at the sky; her eyes were so full of light that everything about her was a blur.

Meanwhile, there’s Mr Royall with whom Charity has a very complicated relationship. Sort of like a father figure to her, Mr Royall is also prone to spells of debauchery and he makes no mistake about his romantic interest in Charity with hopes of converting their relationship to that of husband and wife. Thus, Charity’s feelings are transformed overnight from pity to contempt when Mr Royall first makes his inclinations clear.

Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. For a girl like Charity whose social sphere is so restricted, her affair with Harney is sort of a rebirth and she is drunk with joy. The two arrange to meet secretly and regularly at a secluded empty house to spend time together, and while North Dormer would consider this arrangement scandalous (“She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use”), Charity simply does not care (“She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he (Harney) made it as bright and open as the summer air”).

She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness – the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light – before his first kiss blotted it all out. Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils.

Summer, then, is a bold, beautiful novella, not just of a woman’s sexual awakening but also of class differences and the paucity of choices available to women. From the outset, Charity is made aware of her origins, a fearful place called the Mountain whose residents are steeped in poverty and allegedly lack morals. Mr Royall makes no qualms about deriding Charity’s mother, branding her a loose woman. Having never met her mother or even visited the Mountain, to Charity it’s a place that signifies menace and terror but at the same time she remains a bit curious.

In sharp contrast, Lucius Harney is a cultured, well-educated man and in the course of their passionate tryst, Charity often realizes how out of depth she is with a person of Lucius’ class – she is pretty enough to attract him, but naive and unworldly otherwise. Charity also experiences jealousy whenever she thinks of her peer or rival Annabel Balch, who may not be as stunning as Charity, but has the benefits of class and privilege that are beyond Charity’s grasp.

As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.

TO CONCLUDE…

Ethan Frome and Summer and deviate from the Wharton’s New York novels in many aspects – both these novellas focus on the working class set in provincial towns as opposed to the wealthy upper and middle class milieu of New York. But in terms of the weight of emotional power they remain on an equal footing. Both these tragic novellas are potent in the way they depict repressed desires that have far reaching consequences on the fates of their protagonists.

Real Estate – Deborah Levy

Whether it’s her fiction or her memoirs, Deborah Levy’s prose is like no other. I am certainly a fan. The second book of her ‘Living Autobiography’ memoirs – The Cost of Living – had made it to my Best of 2018 list. Not surprisingly, I see Real Estate finding a place on my year end list too.

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy, the third and final volume of her triumphant “Living Autobiography’ series, a book that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality.

In her second book – The Cost of Living – Levy had to grapple with a dramatic change in her personal life. She was nearly fifty, had recently divorced her husband and had two teenaged daughters to support on her own. It was a tough and challenging time, but she embraced this change with aplomb, navigating this turbulent period with characteristic wit and wisdom.

When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own.

A quest that fires up her imagination, her real estate fantasies come in various striking avatars. Maybe a grand old house with an egg shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree in the garden. At times, she dreams that this property is well endowed with fountains, wells and majestic stairways, at other times she longs for it to be close to either a river or the sea.

The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

I imagined a house in which I could live and work and think at my own pace, but even in my imagination, this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism.

The wish for this home was intense, yet I could not place it geographically, nor did I know how to achieve such a spectacular house with my precarious income.

The odd thing was every time I tried to see myself inside this imagined house, I felt sad. It was as if the search for home was the point, and now that I had acquired it and the chase was over, there were no more branches to put in the fire. It seemed that acquiring a house was not the same as acquiring a home.

While solitude is crucial for her writing career to blossom, Levy also loves being surrounded by people. As she contemplates various real estate possibilities in her mind, even considering a quiet, rural existence, some of her friends can’t envisage her doing that. They know Levy is cosmopolitan, loves attending parties, loves entertaining and a house in the wilderness is hardly going to deliver on that front. But if she does buy her dream home, would she be content staying alone, or is she ready for a new life partner? Levy’s life is rich and varied filled with the warm company of friends and a zest for meeting new people, but she resists the idea of starting a romantic relationship when prodded to consider it by a male best friend.

The hectic life of a renowned writer takes Levy across continents – the book’s sections are named after the cities Levy travels to. The task of clearing her deceased American stepmother’s apartment takes her to New York; the trip to Mumbai is prompted by an invitation to a literary festival, a city where she savours the spicy, mouth-watering bhel puri and devours the most divine guava ice-cream planting in her mind the idea of buying an ice-cream machine; Paris becomes her new temporary residence when she is offered a fellowship; and a dear friend’s birthday sees her making her way to Berlin, the city that inspired her terrific novel The Man Who Saw Everything.

Pretty similar to The Cost of Living, Levy also explores the themes of womanhood and writing in Real Estate, sometimes drawing our attention to writings by other women in this endeavour. For instance, she dwells on the diaries of Susan Sontag which show “the experimental thoughts of a woman preparing to put her foot in the stirrups and get on to her high horse.” Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women while living alone in Boston – “I am in my little room, spending busy, happy days, because I have quiet, freedom, work enough, and strength to do it.”

Levy also highlights how independent, resourceful women are often perceived as a threat to men.

There are many resourceful and imaginative modern women who are heads of their households. Often described as ‘single mothers’, they experience the full weight of patriarchy’s hostility to their holding dominant power in the family. His final last grasp at crushing her imagination and capabilities is to accuse her of causing his impotence. After all, if she can create another sort of household, she can create another sort of world order.

Meanwhile, Levy acknowledges that many people her age are already pretty well off financially and possess their perfect beautiful homes, while she is not in same boat because she does not have the means yet, even if the desire is prominent. In fact, it is quite possible that she may never find her ideal home. But it doesn’t in any way mean that her life is missing anything vital. Levy’s life is vivid fuelled by travel, interesting people, fascinating conversations and an undaunted sense of adventure – a whole gamut of meaningful, valuable experiences that are no less powerful because they can’t be measured.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths.  This trait is visible from the very first page where the purchase of a small banana tree from a flower stall leads to thoughts on Georgia O’ Keeffe and her exquisite depiction of flowers in paintings, and then on to her sprawling home to New Mexico culminating in Levy’s own intense desire to possess a similarly exotic home. Her distinctive worldview, always searching and philosophical, explored through a slew of cultural references make Real Estate endlessly fascinating and tremendously quotable. The writing style brims with verve and chutzpah that is hers alone.

Intelligent, intimate, and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

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.