Book Review: The Mermaid of Black Conch, Monique Roffey

Near the island of Black Conch, a fisherman sings to himself while waiting for a catch. But David attracts a sea-dweller that he never expected – Aycayia, an innocent young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid.

When American tourists capture Aycayia, David rescues her and vows to win her trust. Slowly, painfully, she transforms into a woman again. Yet as their love grows, they discover that the world around them is changing – and they cannot escape the curse for ever . . .

I loved so much of this novel! So much!

I listened to it as an audiobook, narrated sublimely by Ben Onwukue and the rhythm of the language was a real pleasure to listen to – I highly recommend it in this format. It is written with three voices, the third person narrator in 1976, a journal entry written in 2015 by David Baptiste recounting the same events, and a poetic voice of the mermaid herself, Aycayia. Black Conch, a fictionalised version of Tobago, is isolated and insular, a small village where the neighbouring “big island” (Trinidad presumably) feels unreachably far away for most people. A town from which men drift away or languish trapped there.

The tale itself is the story of Aycayia, the eponymous mermaid who is drawn to David’s pirogue, fishing off the coast. Emerging from the ocean to listen to David’s guitar which he plays as he smokes waiting for fish to bite, a tender tenuous relationship starts to develop – once David convinces himself that he is real and not an hallucination! But this romance is cut short by the brutality of the arrival of American fishermen for a fishing contest when they haul Aycayia out of the ocean and string her up like a common fish on the harbour until David rescues her and she slowly transforms into a human form.

Roffey uses this concept to explore themes of gender: are not mermaids quintessentially feminine, alluringly and dangerously sexual, enveloped by the feminine ocean? And Aycayia is all these, instantly objectified by and lusted after by the fishermen, adored by every man who meets her. Indeed, her sexual appeal is the cause for her being cursed to become a mermaid originally: a thousand years before the 1976 setting and the men of Aycayia’s island would not leave her alone, despite the fact that she was exiled from the village, and so the women cursed her.

And Aycayia is only one of several outsider women in the novel: Miss Arcadia Rain is isolated as the only white woman, as the land owner, as the inheritor of the proceeds of slave work; a crone was cursed alongside Aycayia and became a leatherback turtle; even Priscilla is isolated through her bitterness. As Roffey says

Old woman, pretty woman, both rejects. Womanhood was a dangerous business if you didn’t get it right.

Race, class, gender are all explored here, within the touching tale of David’s love for Aycayia, wrapped up in the cadence and rhythms of the Caribbean. It is gorgeous.

Until Roffey talks about sex. I found the descriptions of Aycayia’s awakening desire for David, of her body’s reactions, of David’s sexual history and we get lines like

He knew no sweeter place than the hot and hidden sex of a woman. There was nothing more joyful than to put his head down there, between her legs, nothing of more delight than the sweet, sweet sexing in the blue hours of the night. Sexing had been his true calling in life. Not being a fisherman, or a damn singer with his old guitar; none of that. His true calling was to be a lover of women; he knew how to give them what they liked. It was a gift, a true calling, to be a pleasure-giver.

And Roffey gives us the magic dick – “sexing” with David is so great that is (at least temporarily) saves her from thoughts of the impossibility of her situation and of committing suicide to escape the curse:

The sexing had made her old self speak her first language; she could get back there, in that magic bed. Sexing had blown away the aeons of time that had killed off her memory.

This was the only part of the novel that irked, that brought me out of the wonder of Aycayia as a character – and there was quite a lot of it.

What I Liked

  • Aycayia, the mermaid whose name meant “Sweet Voice” who was suitably ethereal, otherworldly, bestial, lyrical and oh so vulnerable – a fantastic character to create
  • The interplay of a range of powerful themes: race, gender, privilege and power.
  • The representation of sign language – Reggie, Miss Rain’s deaf son, teaches Aycayia sign language and as a daughter whose first language was BSL, I always love to see it represented.
  • The lyrical rhythms of the Jamaican dialect, especially in the audio narration.

What Could Have Been Different

  • A greater distinction between the voices of the third person narrator and David Baptiste’s journal – listening to it, it was on occasion hard to recognise the shift from one to another
  • The descriptions of the sexing was weird and awkward – and somehow felt like a man had written it, badly.

Overall:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Page Count:

272 pages

Publisher:

Vintage

Date:

10th June 2021

Available:

Amazon, Publisher

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