Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey


Peepal Tree Press, 2020
188 pp

(read earlier this month)

I loved this book, and thank goodness that Peepal Tree Press had the smarts to publish it.   In an interview with author Monique Roffey, she states that she finished writing this novel in 2017, but "the reality was that nobody wanted to buy it," and that she was "turned down by every big mainstream publisher."   Too bad for those big mainstream publishers -- in 2020 this book won the author the Costa Award, and I can only imagine the kicking of selves that went on among said mainstream publishers.  

The first time David Baptiste saw the mermaid was in 1976 while out fishing in the waters off Black Conch Island.  He dropped anchor, and after lighting his spliff began to sing to himself while strumming his guitar.  It was then that she made her appearance,
"A red-skinned woman, not black, not African. Not yellow, not a Chinee woman, or a woman with golden hair from Amsterdam. Not a blue woman, either, blue like a damn fish. Red. She was a red woman, like an Amerinidian. Or anyway, her top half was red. 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."
From that moment, he "ached to see her again," and five days later she returned, attracted to his music. She came back now and then, listening to his songs; unfortunately, during the annual fishing competition held in Black Conch in late April, she got too close  to the Dauntless, a whaler on which two Americans, father and son, were fishing.  She was caught by their hook and while she put up a great fight, she lost; when they realized what they had caught, the Americans were determined to take her back to shore, as "she's worth millions."  The men on the boat from the island were stunned, "lost for words and for what to do" -- they had heard about mermen in their part of the ocean, but never a merwomen and at first, they realized that "this was wrong," as "she carried with her bad luck at best," but soon one of them also "began to see dollar signs."   She is reeled in, captured and taken back to the docks where she is hung up like a fish, but later David cut her down and took her to his house.  This is where the story actually begins,  as he tries to keep her not only alive but hidden away from prying eyes as an all-out search begins for the mermaid; it isn't long though until he realizes that she's begun the  transformation from mermaid to young woman. 

If you're rolling your eyebrows at this juncture, wait.  This isn't Splash or The Little Mermaid, but rather a powerful story of otherness, women and the assumptions men make about them as well as the destructive  power of envy, a love story and a quick run through the history of the Caribbean,  pre- and post-colonial.   The mermaid, Aycayia,  was much older than her newly-transformed self revealed -- she was once a woman of the Taino , who had lived on an island "shaped like a lizard," and had been there long before Europeans found their way to the islands and prior to the arrival of enslaved Africans. She had become a mermaid due to a curse put upon her by jealous women, who through the goddess Jagua, "seal up my sex inside a tail, Good joke to seal up that part of me men like."  Through Aycayia's narrative, which is interspersed throughout, she offers a look at pre-colonial history and indigenous myth and legend, while in the main story, the author examines slavery and its legacy in the descendants of the enslaved on Black Conch and in one woman, Arcadia Rain, who owns a large part of the island and can't quite escape her own family's history as slave owners.  Here though, Roffey differs in the usual telling, as Arcadia understands her position on the island and what it represents; she has, along with her young son, isolated herself in the old family home  "to keep away from this hatred. History. The great tragic past."  And there's much, much more.  

The Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent novel, so beautifully told and so powerful, and I can't say I've ever read anything quite like it.  It is one of those books with the originality I crave in terms of story and writing, it has its own special vibrancy that brings both place and people to life, and there are so many layers embedded within this tale waiting to be uncovered that it never has time to be anything but captivating.  

Here's to Peepal Tree Press for taking a chance on this novel.  

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  

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