The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

When I was a child I had an illustrated book of fairy tales. I became obsessed with the story The Little Mermaid. I remember a picture of the prince enfolding the beautiful red-headed princess in his arms and the mermaid looking on, crying, alone. Possibly it fascinated me because the mermaid didn’t marry her prince and live with him happily ever after. It was my first inkling that life doesn’t always go to plan.

Decades later I visited Copenhagen and went out of my way to get to the Little Mermaid statute – the fact my guidebook dismissed it as underwhelming didn’t diminish my enthusiasm to see it. It is a lovely little statue, I think, of a mermaid perched on a rock near the shore-line her body half-turned towards the sea.

The Little Mermaid becomes a woman to try to win her prince. In Monique Roffrey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch the transformation begins the other way around. Aycayia is a beautiful young woman who was changed into a mermaid because of a curse put on her by jealous wives. The novel won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2020.

Aycayia swims around the Caribbean archipelago for maybe a thousand years, until she is attracted by the guitar playing and singing of David, a fisherman from the (imaginary) island of Black Conch. Aycayia gets to know the sound of the motor on David’s boat and for a few weeks they see each other almost every day, David playing his guitar and singing to her.

But one day David takes his boat to accompany a whaling vessel hired by American tourists visiting Black Conch for the annual fishing competition. Attracted by the sound of David’s boat, Aycayia gets too close to the whaler. After a fierce struggle, she is caught and hung upside down on the jetty alongside dead fish.

As night falls and the fishermen are getting drunk in the bar, David cuts Aycayia down and transports her to his house, planning to put her back into the sea the next night. But then Aycayia starts changing back into a woman…

The story is told from three viewpoints, each with its own distinct style: David, now an old man, writes the story in his journal; Aycayia, back in the sea, tells her story in blank verse; and gaps are filled by a third person narrator using traditional prose.

The Mermaid of Black Conch feels both ancient and modern, a contemporary fairy tale, if you like.  And like any good fairy tale it’s simultaneously easy and difficult to read. Easy because the story unfolds in a straightforward way; difficult because it touches on subjects that are dark and disturbing: colonialism, the genocide of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples, slavery. At the heart of the book, a more fundamental truth: how easy it is to cause harm, how difficult it is to make amends. “A curse lasts forever / To make a curse is to make evil / Never curse another.”

Rating: *** Highly recommended

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