The Mermaid of Black Conch – winner of the Costa Novel Award

This book was a while coming - a sign of the times - but I'm pleased to say we have it here at Christchurch City Libraries and even more pleased to have read it.

The Mermaid of Black Conch

In a Caribbean clean-sweep, this book by Monique Roffey took out the Costa Book of the Year and the Costa Novel Award this year. Its Caribbean sister, Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud, won the Costa Prize for First Novel. 

The Mermaid of Black Conch pays homage to the timeless idea of romance between humans and humans-crossed-with-fish. Storytellers can't seem to resist this idea.

This tale is based on a Taíno mermaid legend. Taíno were the indigenous people of Florida and the Caribbean, sadly wiped out by interbreeding and smallpox, both brought by Spanish colonisation.

The talented Roffey brings new life to the Mermaid myth, much as Rivers Solomon did with her Lambda-winning novella The Deep.

Roffey calls her win "a win for Caribbean literature"  - one of the first trailblazers being Jean Rhys, who wrote The Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel of the life of Mr Rochester's supposedly mad wife from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, who was plucked from Jamaica).

A mix of poignancy and humour, The Mermaid of Black Conch begins with David, now an old fisherman, remembering his first encounter with the mermaid while smoking dope - not trusting his eyes. He recounts the fateful consequences that result:

"The music brought her to him, not the engine sound, though she knew that too. It was the magic that music makes, the song that lives in every creature on earth, including mermaids. She hadn't heard music for a long time, maybe a thousand years, and she was irresistibly drawn up to the surface, real slow and real interested." (p.10)

Black Conch is a treatise on the dichotomy of human nature: to be cruel and destructive, or show kindness and love.

White men, portrayed as conquerors of sea, land and all its creatures, fall into the former category while the men of Black Conch live closely to nature, where luck and superstition play a part in earning a living. Pulling this goddess from the sea must surely bring bad luck, as she represents the ocean, seen as female:

"The sea was the giant woman of the planet, fluid and contrary." (p.17)

The story's saving grace is the relationship between Aycayia and David, built on mutual trust and understanding. David, although compelled by the mermaid as much as other men, takes the trouble to patiently wait for Aycayia's trust and the time to try communicating with her.

Aycayia is not an evolved creature. Magic is to blame for her predicament: living alone in the sea for thousands of years she is preserved as the young 'woman' she was, cursed by her village women for being to attractive to men. There is a lot of irony in this tale. Roffey tells the story through David's diary entries, interspersing his text with Aycayia's song, in verse form.

The Caribbean is an island nation made up of an incredible seventy-three islands, and influenced by French, Dutch and British colonisation. It is no wonder that its inhabitants both worship and fear the ocean that has the power to give life and take it away. Black Conch and St Constance appear to be fictions, but represent life in the islands - a mix of modernism and tradition.

Having read Love After Love, I've learned the meaning of 'Trini' or Creole words like 'liming' - which means to hang out; maco; a nosy gossip, steupse, to disagree by sucking in air through one's teeth and tabanca - a tantrum brought on by unrequited love.

Repetition characterises the language with double-emphasis phrases like 'slow slow' and 'dou dou' (which means sweetheart).

The music of the Caribbean features too: the sounds of Toots and the Maytals, Aswad, Bob Marley and the Wailers and Burning Spear are a language of sorts that enables a deaf boy to hear bassline rhythm and acts as a conduit for communication for Aycayia. The inclusion of The Wailers is timely; Bunny Wailer passed away on March 2.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a delightful and disarming story, and the closest many of us will get to the Carribbean Islands any time soon. Immerse yourself in it!

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